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A Conspiracy of Cartographers: Year Two [+podfic]

Chapter Text

The knocker was silver. Of course it was. With an internal sigh, Remus Lupin wrapped the loose sleeve of his robes around his hand and plucked gingerly at the twisted serpent, which made a surprisingly deep, hollow booming noise against the wood of the door. Remus shouldered his overnight bag more firmly and wondered for the hundredth time if this was really such a good idea.

The idea had been Sirius's, which made it dubious at best. But over the course of his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Sirius Black had become Remus's best friend, aside from Lily Evans, and he had sounded so desperate when, on the last day of term, he had invited his three roommates to his twelfth birthday, that Remus had immediately promised he would come.

Part of what made Remus so nervous, now that he was actually standing on the doorstep of the Black family home, was that he hadn't heard from Sirius at all since his friend had invited him, but that had only been four days before, so maybe it wasn't so odd. He hadn't had an owl from Lily yet, either, after all. The rest of what was causing him to shift anxiously from foot to foot was everything that Sirius had told Remus about his family.

The Blacks were pure-bloods -- a family of only witches and wizards dating back on both sides as far as anyone could remember. Of course there was nothing wrong with that in principle, any more than there was anything wrong with Remus being a half-blood wizard, or Lily being Muggleborn. Unfortunately, the Blacks were the sort of pure-bloods who thought otherwise. Sirius had been brought up in the belief that his blood made him better than anyone who was less "pure" than he was, and that his money made him better than other pure-blood wizards.

If Sirius had been Sorted into Slytherin House when he arrived at Hogwarts, as he had expected to be, he might still believe all that rubbish. Fortunately, he had been Sorted into Gryffindor, along with Remus and their friends James Potter and Peter Pettigrew, and over the course of the previous year, he had had most of those sorts of ideas shaken out of him.

But at this house -- number twelve, Grimmauld Place in London -- those ideas still reigned supreme, and Remus, with his mostly-Muggle heritage and his secondhand robes, knew better than to expect a warm welcome from Sirius's family. Little as he agreed with their ideas, however, Remus had no wish to antagonise his hosts. He was dressed in his best robes, and his mother had given him a haircut the day before, so he didn't look quite so scruffy as he had.

At least none of them know I'm a werewolf, he thought, eyeing the knocker again. If they ever found out his secret, even Sirius wouldn't welcome him, or probably ever speak to him again.

The door opened, and an ugly little face peered out from about the level of Remus's navel. The Black family house-elf. He looked Remus up and down contemptuously.

"What does you want?" he croaked in a deep, bullfrog voice.

"I -- that is -- Sirius invited me --" he stammered.

"Who is it, Kreacher?" asked a voice.

The door opened wider to reveal a boy of about ten. He had Sirius's black hair, grey eyes, and long, dark lashes, but his features were less vivid and finely-drawn than his brother's. His eyes narrowed as he beheld Remus.

"Can I help you?" His voice was cold.

Remus hitched a friendly smile onto his face and took a deep breath. "You must be Regulus. I'm Remus Lupin. Your brother invited me --"

Footsteps pounded down the stairs and the door was suddenly flung wide to reveal a scowling Sirius, long hair hanging about his face, rather than pulled back in his usual fashion. Whether this was calculated to annoy his parents, or because he was not allowed to use magic at home to tie it back, or to hide the shadow of a bruise on his cheek, Remus couldn't be sure. With barely a glance at Remus, Sirius rounded on his brother and the house-elf. "Bugger off, you two."

"Just wanted to see who you'd invited," Regulus sulked before flinging himself down the hall and out of sight.

"Mistress will not be pleased that you has invited nasty Mudblood filth into the house of her ancestors, Master Sirius," muttered Kreacher. He vanished with a pop as Sirius, with a shout of rage, made a grab for him.

Remus stared down at his feet, feeling desperately out of place. "Happy birthday. Sorry I'm late," he mumbled. "Had to get a bus from the Leaky Cauldron."

"C'mon," said Sirius gruffly, turning his back. "James and Pete are already here."

As Remus followed Sirius up the stairs, he couldn't help staring at his surroundings. Everything in the house looked either extremely expensive or very, very old. Moving portraits of people wearing the fashions of ages past glared suspiciously at Remus from the walls, interspersed with old-fashioned gas lamps. A delicate silver and crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, clearly of the same craftsmanship as the door knocker, with the same serpent motif. Decorative objects in ivory, silver, ebony, jade and other expensive materials graced end tables and curio cabinets. It was rather like being in a gloomy and dimly-lit Wizarding version of the British Museum.

At the first landing, Remus recoiled from a display of mounted house-elf heads.

"Don't ask," muttered Sirius.

Sirius's bedroom was enormous. Almost as big as their entire dormitory in Gryffindor tower. But aside from his school trunk, there was not much to mark it as Sirius's. It looked much like the rest of the house, only with empty rectangles on the faded wallpaper showing where portraits used to hang, and without any of the fancy decorative objects Remus had noted elsewhere.

"My parents were afraid I'd wreck them," said Sirius smugly, when he caught Remus eyeing the empty walls.

James and Peter were playing a game of Gobstones on the floor. James glanced up long enough to exchange a nod of greeting with Remus.

"Hey, Remus," grinned Peter, looking up. "I'm about to beat James if you want in on the next game."

"Maybe," said Remus, setting his overnight bag with the others'. "So. How've things been?"

"The usual." Sirius raised his chin, eyes glinting like steel. "Doesn't matter, though. Mother and Father can say what they like about my 'attitude', but they can't make me think like them." His fingers rose unconsciously to brush his bruised cheek.

Remus wasn't so sure, but refrained from comment. Instead, he sat down on the floor to watch James and Peter finish their game. "At least they let you have your friends over for your birthday."

Sirius joined him on the floor, smug look back in place. "We have an agreement. They let me have you lot here, and I said I'd be civil to whoever they invite for tea."

"Who've they invited?" Remus asked.

Sirius rolled his eyes. "Girls. But not as many as usual. It turns out I'm less 'eligible' now that I'm a Gryffindor, so it'll probably just be desperate types and daughters from poorer families."

Remus blinked at him. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm the heir," Sirius said with a shrug. "Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, and all that rot. I'm supposed to marry some pure-blood girl and continue the family line, aren't I?"

"And -- you're going along with that?" Remus's love of reading had made him a bit of a romantic at heart, and this went against all his sensibilities.

Sirius looked down, picking at the carpet. "Dunno. I haven't liked any of the girls yet. Not that that matters. But they're all brainless and snobby and spoilt and --"

"Sounds like a good match to me," chuckled James.

"Shut it, you," said Sirius, punching his best friend lightly in the knee.

"I wouldn't mind if Mum invited a bunch of girls over for me," Peter mused, lining up his Gobstones for his next move.

Sirius laughed. "They'd have to be pretty desperate to go for you."

Peter blushed, missing his shot, and James threw Sirius a sharp look, which the other boy ignored. Remus shifted uncomfortably. Sirius frequently teased Peter, but it had been months since he'd been nasty about it.

"Anyway," Sirius continued, "I was thinking we could prank them. The girls, I mean. There's lots of spiders in the attic, and --"

"I thought you promised to be nice to them?" Remus interrupted. Sirius gave him a sour look. "Sure. Spoil all my fun, Lupin. Whose birthday is it, anyway?"

But James was shaking his head, too. "I don't think it's a good idea. At school, maybe, but --"

"Oh, good!" sneered Sirius, rolling his eyes. "Two Lupins. Now the fun can really begin! What about you, Pete?"

Peter was reluctant to venture an opinion. "Maybe. I dunno. It's girls, isn't it?"

"Fine!" declared Sirius. "No pranks. How am I supposed to pick a wife if you lot won't even let me see what she does when there are spiders in her hair?"

"Keep on like this, and my money's on you dying alone," James muttered as he aimed his last Gobstone at one of Peter's.

The stones clicked together and Peter's turned over, spraying the blond boy full in the face with its stinging juice.

"I believe that's a win for me," said James with a grin. "Who's up next?"

Remus had seen Sirius's father before, but never his mother. Orion Black was a tall man in his middle forties who might have been handsome if not for the hard lines of sneering disapproval carved around his eyes and mouth. He had the same grey eyes and black hair as his sons, but was beginning to go silver at the temples. Walburga Black's hair had probably been black once, too, but she now wore it in an elaborate grey knot at the back of her head. Her face was pinched and sour, and it was impossible to tell if she had ever been an attractive woman.

"Lupin?" she said, dark eyes narrowing suspiciously down at him. "I don't believe I know that name. Who are your parents, boy?"

Remus screwed up as much of his Gryffindor courage as he could manage. He had no wish to antagonise Sirius's mother, but he would not let her make him ashamed of his parents, either. "My father used to work for the Ministry," he said quietly. "My mother is a Muggle."

She gave a shocked little sniff, and turned narrowed black eyes on her son. "I see."

Sirius moved to stand beside him, making a show of draping an arm casually across Remus's shoulders. "Remus is one of my best friends, Mother."

Is that why I'm here? Remus wondered. To prove a point to your family?

Sirius's parents had known Peter for some time. James, as the pure-blood son of a noted Auror, was, if not an honoured guest, at least tolerated. Remus, it seemed, was going to be ignored, which was something of a relief to him. If he could just make it through tea and back up to Sirius's room for the night, everything would be all right.

The other guests had begun to arrive by then. There were five of them in all, and, as Sirius had predicted, they were all girls. Remus knew a few of them. Venice Corbet and her best friend Elswith More were Gryffindors in the same year as him and his friends at Hogwarts. Madeleine Yaxley was also in their year, but in Slytherin. Another girl, Bertha Jorkins, had to be almost sixteen, and the fifth guest, whose name Remus didn't catch, was a little girl of no more than four with a lazy eye.

Sirius's parents ushered all of the children, including Regulus, into the parlour for a social hour before tea was served. They gave Remus a look that said they would rather shut him up in a broom cupboard than force his company on their more civilised guests, but they had no choice but to send him in with the rest.

Kreacher the house-elf served them punch from a large crystal bowl. When he refused to acknowledge Remus's presence, Sirius snatched a tumbler from his thin fingers and shoved it into Remus's hands, glaring at the house-elf, then stormed over to an armchair in a corner, where he flounced glowering forbiddingly at everyone.

Peter and Regulus sat down on the floor, got out their Gobstone sets, and began to play, though Peter kept glancing around distractedly at the girls, especially Corbet and Yaxley, who were both rather pretty. James quickly became involved in an animated discussion about Quidditch and Gryffindor's chances for the coming year with the two Gryffindor girls, who wore friendly smiles but kept shooting furtive glances at Sirius. Yaxley and Jorkins were exchanging Slytherin gossip in another corner.

The little girl pulled a book off a shelf, sat down against the wall, and began telling herself a story. Remus crouched down beside her.

"Hi, what's your name?"

"Ada," she lisped shyly.

"I'm Remus. Would you tell me a story?"

She gave him a wide smile, and began telling him all about a princess who had been turned into a dragon by a kindly witch to save her from an evil prince, every now and then remembering to turn the pages of the Wizarding peerage book in her lap. Remus listened attentively, and decided that this was better than Quidditch talk or gossip or trying to coax his temperamental friend into conversation.

Her parents dumped her here hoping to match her with Sirius, poor kid, he thought. Much as he liked Sirius most of the time, he couldn't help feeling a bit sorry for anyone who might have to put up with his moodiness every day for the rest of their life.

"What are you doing?"

Remus looked up to see Sirius standing over him.

"I'm being friendly."

"A bit young for you, isn't she?"

"At least she's not looking down her nose at me."

"Yeah? Well, give her a few years. I'm sure she'll learn."

Remus didn't think Sirius meant it as a barb against him, but the words still stung. It was yet another reminder that the place he held in the magical world was tenuous at best. Without money or family connections, he would have to rely on his wits and his skill at magic to get by, but even that would probably not be enough once people knew his secret. At school, he was safe under the protection of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, but he knew that the real world would treat him much more like the one inside number twelve, Grimmauld Place.

"Did you want something, Sirius?"

His friend's jaw was set belligerently. "Why didn't you come talk to me?"

"It didn't look like you wanted company."

"Well, you might've tried."

Remus sighed. "I'm sorry, Sirius. Was there something you wanted to talk about?"

"That's a really old book. She probably shouldn't be touching it."

"Your parents probably wouldn't want me getting my half-blood fingerprints all over it either," Remus muttered. He was getting tired of Sirius looming over him. "Ada, Sweetheart, I'm sorry but we have to put the book away now."

"'Ada, Sweetheart'," Sirius mimicked in a sneery singsong voice. The room had gone very quiet. "Are you betrothed already?"

Remus got to his feet and faced his friend. The little girl clung to his robes, unsure whether the situation called for tears. "Why? Afraid I'll take away one of your options? I'm sure her parents wouldn't like me any more than yours do."

"Probably not, if they want me for her. Shall we find out?" Sirius lowered his eyes to the little girl, smirking. "Hey, Ada. Did you know Remus is a half-blood?"

She immediately let go of him, stepping back. "Dirty half-blood," she lisped uncertainly, staring up at him with huge eyes.

Remus's stomach clenched. Everyone was staring at him.

"Sirius --" James said quietly, putting himself between his friends.

Kreacher appeared in the parlour doorway. "Tea is prepared, if the young masters and mistresses will be following."

Sirius turned away and followed the rest of his guests out of the room without a word.

James hesitated. "He's just edgy because of being here, I think. He doesn't mean anything by it."

"Yeah." Remus stared uncertainly after the departing boy. "You're probably right."

He trailed along behind the others down the hall to an exquisitely appointed dining room. A dozen high-backed chairs carved out of dark wood surrounded a long table covered in a green linen tablecloth. Two ornate silver candelabra stood on the table, providing a deceptively warm glow. Sirius's parents were already seated at the head and foot of the table, and Sirius and Regulus automatically took the seats at their father's right and left hands. Venice Corbet grabbed the seat next to Sirius, shunting his friends down the table. Remus ended awkwardly positioned between Peter and Mrs Black, who wrinkled her nose at him, as if his proximity might cause her to lose her appetite.

"A toast," said Mr Black, once they were all seated. "To Sirius. My son. My heir. May his fortunes and his judgment only improve from this day forwards."

Remus had reached for his goblet with the rest, but quickly drew back, heart sinking. Silver. The goblet was silver. And so was the cutlery. Of course it was. How could he have been so thick? Remus stared down at his place setting with growing horror. There was no way he would be able to fake his way through this. He couldn't very well eat with his hands, nor could he beg off sick and starve himself until he returned home the following afternoon -- not with his appetite growing daily with the waxing moon.

"Is there a problem?" Mrs Black asked coldly.

He stood abruptly, pushing his chair away from the table.

"Remus?" said Peter. "Are you OK?"

"Sorry," he mumbled, looking at no one. "Thanks for your hospitality, but I really must be going."

He turned and fled from the room.

Sirius was annoyed. He had been annoyed since his return from Hogwarts four days before. His parents annoyed him with their ill-concealed contempt for him. Regulus annoyed him by siding with his parents and clinging to their stupid ideas of pure-blood elitism. Kreacher annoyed him with muttered comments about how Sirius had disgraced his name and his blood. These stupid girls were annoying him with their mindless chatter and simpering looks. And now Remus was annoying him, too, showing up in his least-worn robes with that stupid new haircut, as if he thought Sirius's parents wouldn't know him for an unmoneyed half-blood on sight.

But most of all, Sirius was annoyed with himself. He had wanted Remus here for the personal satisfaction of inviting a half-blood werewolf into his blood-proud parents' home, but somehow he had never considered how nasty his family were likely to be to Remus, nor how Remus might feel about it. It would have been all right if Remus had stood up for himself, like he had with Severus Snape only a few weeks earlier, but instead, he was acting just like he had at the very beginning of their first year, withdrawing and running away, undoing all the work Sirius had put into drawing him out and setting him on the road to acting like a normal boy, and that -- that was really annoying.

Sirius stormed into the hallway where Remus stood with his back to him, shoulders hunched, staring at the front door's silver knob.

"What the hell was that all about, Lupin?" he shouted.

Remus turned, but his eyes stayed fixed on the floor, his hands in his pockets. "This was a bad idea. I shouldn't've come."

"Yeah?" said Sirius. "Well, maybe you shouldn't've, if you're just going to embarrass me in front of my family like that, and prove them right about everything."

Remus flinched, hunching his shoulders like a kicked dog, and Sirius immediately felt ten times worse. He wanted to say or do something to force Remus not be like that. Hex him or hit him or kiss him or anything to shock him out of his stupid, pointless passivity. How could they sort anything out if Remus wouldn't fight back or even look at him?

"Why don't you grow a spine, Lupin? Start acting like a Gryffindor, since you're supposed to be one."

"Please, Sirius," Remus begged, raising desperate brown eyes to meet his for a second.

"Fine!" snapped Sirius. He grabbed the other boy by the arm and hauled him back into the parlour. Swiping a decorative jar from the mantelpiece, he scooped out a handful of Floo powder and threw it on the grate where it blazed into green flames. "Run away. See if I care."

Without looking at him, Remus stumbled to the fireplace, and with a whispered word, he was gone.

For a moment, Sirius stared into the empty hearth, trying and failing to find some way of making this all Remus's fault. Turning on his heel, he sailed back into the dining room, subsiding into his chair. He glared defiance at the staring faces up and down the table, daring them to make something of it. Only James wasn't looking at him. His eyes were fixed on his plate, and he was shovelling food into his mouth as though nothing had happened.

"Well," said his mother. "I think we've all learned something about the connection between good breeding and good manners today." She looked almost pleased.

Sirius decided that if he couldn't make it Remus's fault, he could most certainly make it his parents'.

"I learned that good breeding means you can be rude to a guest and still feel superior, so long as his breeding's not as good as yours."

"Now, Sirius," said his father, a hint of warning in his voice. "We didn't make your little friend leave. I, for one, was prepared to tolerate his presence in our home for the duration of his visit."

"I think it was really generous of you to invite him," said Venice Corbet, turning simpering blue eyes on him. "I can't believe he was so ungrateful to make a scene like that. He doesn't deserve a friend like you."

"Probably not," Sirius muttered, guilt twinging in his guts.

"Venice really likes you, Sirius," said Elswith More, seated across the table next to Regulus. "She's been telling me for ages."

"Elsie!" cried Venice, a look of shocked delight on her face. "You weren't supposed to tell him!"

But Sirius strongly suspected that she had been meant to tell him exactly that. The two girls had every appearance of having learnt their lines off by heart. He groaned internally. His parents were looking more and more pleased.

"Venice was asking me the other day what I thought your favourite colours were," More continued.

Sirius raised his chin and glared at his father's nodding approval. "Red and gold."

Orion Black frowned slightly, then shrugged and went back to his meal.

"Gryffindor colours! I told you Elsie!" exclaimed Corbet. "I love them, too, of course."

"Marigolds," said More decisively. "A wreath of them in your hair, and for the bouquet as well."

"Perfect!" declared Corbet, clapping her hands together.

Sirius glared suspiciously back and forth between the two girls. "What in the name of Godric Gryffindor are you two on about?"

"Our wedding," Corbet dimpled at him prettily.

Sirius heard a snort from somewhere down the table. James.

For a second, he stared at the girl, openmouthed with shock. "What makes you think I would ever want to marry a stuck-up bint like you?"

"Sirius!" gasped his mother.

"Or any of you?" demanded Sirius, rising to his feet, flushed with rage. "This is my choice? Snooty Gryffindors? The two dimmest Slytherins ever? And her!" He gestured towards the little girl, Ada. "What am I meant to do with her? Change her nappies?"

"Sirius Orion Black," thundered his father, standing up. "You will close your mouth this instant, or by all that is pure and powerful, I will close it for you."

Sirius glared up at him. "If it keeps me from having to say 'I do' to any of these bints, then that's fine by me."

Whatever James Potter might have thought of his best friend's parents, he couldn't help but approve of Sirius's father's choice of hexes. The Mouth-Sealing jinx was a definite improvement.

"Aren't you going to do the counter-jinx?" Peter asked nervously. "Because I don't remember it."

"Not supposed to do magic outside school, am I?" said James.

The muffled sounds coming from behind Sirius's locked lips increased in pitch and volume, and if looks could kill, the glare he shot at James would have vaporised him on the spot.

The three of them were back in Sirius's massive bedroom, following the exodus of the less-than-pleased female contingent of the guests. Sirius had been given strict orders not to come out of his room until he had written letters of apology to each of the girls and their parents. James noted that Sirius's parents had not required that an apology be sent to Remus, though James privately thought one was in order.

"C'mon, James," entreated Peter. "Just take it off him and let's forget about it. We can play a game or something."

"All right," James said. "I'll take it off. But only because I want a word with you, Black."

He had not brought his own wand, due to strict laws regarding underage magic, but a quick rummage through Sirius's school trunk uncovered his. He pointed it lazily at his friend, contemplating all the other jinxes and hexes Sirius richly deserved at the moment.

"Hisce," he said at last, giving the wand a little sweeping twirl.

Sirius's mouth opened with a smacking sound, and he rubbed his jaw. "I cannot believe you were thinking of leaving me like that, Potter!"

"I can always redo it," James reminded him.

"I'm -- ah -- just off to the toilet," said Peter, with a terrified glance between them. "I'll be back when --" He turned and fled.

Sirius narrowed his eyes at James. "Give me my wand, you prat."

"I don't think so." James was not about to let himself be intimidated by some spoilt, posh tosser who thought he was better than everyone else. "First we're going to talk about why I don't like it here."

"So sorry my ancestral home doesn't live up to the standards of James Potter," Sirius sneered, flouncing onto his bed.

James glared at him with unaccustomed ire. "No. I don't like you here, Black. Four days back with your family, and you're acting just like them. Maybe I was a prat about Remus last spring, but you --" He held up his hand and began counting off on his fingers. "You were a prick to the house-elf, you were a prick to your parents, you were a prick to your brother, you were a prick to those girls -- she was four, Black; she hadn't done anything to you, and you made her cry."

"She snubbed Remus," said Sirius defiantly.

"You snubbed Remus," James snapped. "I heard what you said to him. We all bloody did, while your mum and dad just sat there, smirking. Didn't you call yourself his 'champion' last year? You were a prick to him, and now you're being a prick to me."

Sirius's mouth twisted. "What about Pete?"

James rolled his eyes. "You're always a prick to Pete. Now, can you give me one good reason why I shouldn't hit you?"

"I'm your best mate."

"No," James shook his head. "The bloke I know at Hogwarts -- the one who actually cares about his friends -- he's my best mate. I don't know who you are."

"Maybe this is who I am," Sirius sneered. "Ever think of that, Potter?"

James gave him a piercing look. "No it's not. You're better than this. You've just got your head too far up your arse right now to see it."

"Yeah?" said Sirius. "Well, maybe you're not as good a mate as I thought."

"There's where you're wrong, Black," James told him. "I'm mate enough to knock you over the head when you're making a complete ass of yourself. If I wasn't such a good mate, I'd've been off right behind Remus, and you'd be left here all alone to celebrate your birthday with Pete and your family."

Sirius struggled with his expression for a moment, and then he grinned. "Well, there's your reason, mate."

James glared at him suspiciously. "My reason for what?"

"You can't hit me because it's my birthday."

They stared at one another for a long moment, and then both of them burst out laughing. James collapsed onto the bed, and they giggled and wheezed until tears ran down their faces and Peter returned to stare at them as if they'd both gone mad.

"You sorted things out, then?" Peter asked warily.

"Merlin's arse!" gasped James. "This has got to be the worst birthday party ever!"

"You should hear about some of my other ones," Sirius told him, and they were off again, laughing until their stomach muscles hurt and all they could do was lie there, fizzing giddily at the ceiling.

"Thanks," Sirius said when he was able to speak again. "I needed that."

James rolled over on his front, flourishing the wand at Sirius in mock-threat. "Ready to admit the error of your ways, Black?"

"Maybe," Sirius confessed. "I guess I knew I was being a prat, but everyone was just being so bloody irritating. I hate it here."

"Can't say I blame you, mate," James said sympathetically. "Are you going to write those apologies?"

Sirius shook his head. "Why should I when I'm not sorry? My parents can't make me, and I don't care what their families think."

"Some of them were all right," said Peter.

Sirius snorted. "Which ones?"

Peter blushed. "Maddy was nice."

"Nice?" said James sceptically. "You know she's a Slytherin, right, Pete?"

"I know," Peter looked at his toes. "But she's really pretty, and she remembered my name."

James looked at Sirius, and they both shrugged. There was no accounting for taste. Not that James thought Peter was wrong about Yaxley's looks. She had long dark hair and wide green eyes, and was really not bad to look at, for a Slytherin, but James had seen her in Potions class, and had gained the distinct impression that she had about as much brain as Peter's pet Puffskein.

"What about you, mate?" said Sirius. "Did you fancy any of them?"

James frowned. "Corbet and More were all right when we were talking Quidditch, but not really my type."

"What's your type, then?" Peter asked.

"Redheads," James grinned.

Sirius laughed. "Evans?"

James rolled his eyes. "She's got about as much sense of humour as McGonagall, doesn't like Quidditch, and can't stand the sight of me. Yes, I think I'll propose."

"What about Tildy Hathersage?" Peter asked curiously. Matilda Hathersage, another Gryffindor, was also a redhead, and had been very open about her interest in James the previous year.

James shrugged. "Maybe. At least she likes Quidditch."

"Maybe I should ask Evans out," Sirius mused, clearly imagining how his parents would react if they discovered their son and heir was seeing a Muggleborn girl. "I'm loads better looking than Snivellus."

"A brilliant plan," said James, chuckling at his best friend's modesty, "aside from the fact that she can't stand you any more than me. D'you even fancy her?"

Sirius shook his head. "Not really into redheads."

James grinned. "Good to know we won't be fighting over girls, at least."

They were just settling into a game of Exploding Snap when the door creaked open a crack. Sirius's head jerked up, eyes narrowed, mouth tight, but James caught his eye and gave him a quelling look, and he relaxed slightly.

"You can come in if you want, Regs," he said, only a little grudgingly.

The younger boy came hesitantly into the room, and James and Peter shifted over to allow him into the circle of the game.

James turned to him. "I don't believe we've been properly introduced. James Potter." He held out his hand.

Regulus returned the gesture, shaking hands awkwardly. "Regulus Black."

"A pleasure to meet you, Regulus," James said cordially. "But it's only fair to warn you -- and I think your brother will back me up -- if you say anything rude about half-bloods or Muggleborns in my hearing, I will thump you. Do we have an understanding?"

Regulus nodded slowly, and James smiled, dealing him into the game.

"Are Mother and Father still furious?" Sirius asked his brother.

Regulus nodded again, grey eyes wide. "I couldn't believe what you said to those girls, Sirius. What if you have to marry one of them someday?"

Sirius scowled. "If you're so keen on them, why don't you marry one of them?"

"Probably will," mumbled Regulus, shifting uncomfortably.

James watched as Sirius looked at his brother for a long moment. "You don't have to, you know, Regs," he said quietly. Regulus didn't raise his eyes from his cards. "I'm not like you, Sirius. I'm not a Gryffindor."

"Yeah, well, I didn't think I was, either," said Sirius. "We'll see what the Hat says next year. All I know is that I'm not marrying anyone Mother and Father hand-pick for me."

Later that night, after Regulus had gone back to his own room, and Peter was snoring on the far edge of the enormous bed, curled up against the wall, James and Sirius's voices continued quietly in the darkness.

"What's Pete's house like?" James asked. He leaned up on one elbow, looking down at his friend lying on his back beside him, barely able to make out his face.

Sirius shrugged. "A bit like a being in a junk shop. His mum collects all kinds of old rubbish. Figurines and things. And no one's allowed to touch them or play with them or bring them to life and make them fight."

James chuckled at that, wondering how many of Mrs Pettigrew's treasures had been lost to Sirius's exuberance.

"Why d'you want to know?" his friend asked sleepily. "Fancy a visit?"

It was James's turn to shrug. "I was just thinking. When you're a kid, living at home with your parents, you just sort of assume your life's normal, and everyone else's is pretty much like yours. But it's not, is it?"

Sirius laughed softly. "What? No dead house-elves up on the walls at your place?"

"No." James smiled lopsidedly. "Nothing like that. And nothing like Pete's house from the sound of it, either. And Remus's life has to be different, too, because of -- you know. And then there's you." He raised a hand tentatively to touch his friend's cheek in the darkness. "Was it your dad that hit you, or your mum?"

Sirius gave a huff of embarrassment, turning away. "Father," he admitted. "But they don't usually do that, before you go thinking I'm some sad case who gets knocked around by his parents all the time. Usually, it's just going to bed without supper. Or the cellar overnight, if I've done something really dreadful."

James didn't see that that was any better than parents who hit, but wasn't prepared to make an issue of it at the moment. "What made your dad hit you?"

"Called Voldemort 'Moldywart'." Sirius sounded a bit smug. "They think he's got the right idea about things, and I just -- got tired of hearing about it."

"What do you think they'll do after we go home tomorrow?" James asked quietly.

"Dunno. You don't have to go, though. They probably won't do much of anything if you stay."

James shook his head. "I can't stay here."

"Oh." Sirius sounded disappointed. "That's OK. I know it's rubbish here, and --"

"And you can't stay here either, mate," James said firmly. "You're coming home with me tomorrow."

Chapter Text

"The sixth step creaks," warned Sirius as they paused at the first landing under the glassy gaze of three generations of extinct Black family house-elves to listen for any noise.

The enormous house was still and silent around them, but Sirius did not relax his guard. Kreacher had a nasty habit of popping up at the least-opportune moments, and if he caught Sirius sneaking out of the house, he was sure to raise the alarm.

It was mid-afternoon the day following Sirius's birthday, and the house was even darker than usual, rain streaming down the windowpanes. Peter's mother had come to collect him shortly after breakfast, but James had delayed his departure, informing Sirius's mother that his parents did not expect him home before tea time. They had retreated to Sirius's bedroom to await a quiet moment to put their plan into action.

As Sirius had expected, his father had left the house for a luncheon meeting -- something about investments and the head of the Wizarding Transportation Department, Sirius dimly recalled him mentioning -- and his mother had taken a Sleeping Draught and gone to lie down and recover from the previous day's excitement, leaving strict instructions with the house-elf to keep an eye on Sirius, Regulus and James.

With a quick glance behind him, Sirius shouldered his bag and tiptoed down the stairs after his best friend, pausing to hop over the creaky step. Together, they rounded the corner and ducked into the parlour, hurrying over to the large fireplace. Sirius had just reached for the decorative jar of Floo powder when --

"What're you doing?"

He swore under his breath, whirling around. Regulus was curled up in the high-backed chair by the door, his diary open on his lap.

"That's none of your business," snapped Sirius.

James laid a quelling hand on his arm. "I invited Sirius over to my house."

Regulus frowned. "Do Mother and Father know?"

"Yes," Sirius lied. "They said it's fine so long as I'm back in time for the Wilkes's party."

"But -- that's in July," said his brother, sitting up, brow furrowed. "Mother and Father would never let you go off for that long."

"C'mon." Sirius turned back to the fireplace. "Let's get out of here."

There was a sudden sharp pop, and Sirius groaned. Kreacher. His clean getaway was going much less smoothly than he had hoped.

"Master Sirius! What is you doing?" croaked the house-elf. "You cannot be going anywhere without the Mistress's permission!"

Long, thin, and surprisingly-strong fingers closed around Sirius's wrist, yanking him back from the hearth. James stepped forwards, hand out, but looked unsure what to do.

"Let go, Kreacher!" Sirius snapped. "Don't touch me!"

But clearly the Mistress's instructions to keep an eye on her sons overrode any order Sirius might give.

"Must take Master Sirius to the Mistress!" squealed Kreacher with undisguised glee. "Master Sirius will be punished for his sneaking."

"Kreacher --"

The house-elf stilled. "Master Regulus?"

Sirius glared at his brother, standing in the middle of the parlour, diary in hand, looking as if he was trying to decide something.

"Go -- go tell Mother what Sirius is doing," he said. "I'll stay here and keep an eye on him."

The house-elf looked back and forth between the two brothers, then vanished with another pop.

"Sirius?" James said.

Sirius lifted his chin defiantly, eyes locked with Regulus's. "How're you going to keep me here, little brother?"

"I'm not," said Regulus. "Go if you like. You don't want to be here, and you'll just keep making trouble."

Sirius hesitated. "Mother and Father will punish you if they think you let me go."

The younger boy's expression mirrored his brother's. "That's my lookout, isn't it? Go if you're going."

"C'mon," said James, shoving the jar of Floo powder into Sirius's hands. He tossed a handful onto the grate -- "Number four, Pumpkin Lane, Godric's Hollow," -- and vanished with a whoosh.

The two brothers stared at one another a moment longer until footsteps upstairs forced Sirius into action. He turned away. "Thanks," he muttered grudgingly, and followed James into the fire.

James was there to catch him as he stumbled out of the fireplace. When he regained his balance, Sirius stared. He knew his friend's family had money. All of James's school things were either new or of good quality, if not as fine as Sirius's own. He had been expecting a better-lit, less-forbidding, more Gryffindorish version of his own home, with lots of warm woodwork and rich velvet drapes at the very least. The reality made him think for a moment that they had somehow ended up in the wrong house.

Woodwork there was, and in plenty, but roughhewn and rustic-looking, with exposed beams in the ceiling, and thick, sturdy lintels on the windows and doors. Instead of priceless family heirlooms, every horizontal surface Sirius could see was covered in clutter. Parchment, books -- both serious-looking tomes and bright, dog-eared paperbacks -- jars, framed photographs, an overflowing mending basket, several interesting-looking carved stone objects, a few sprouting seedlings in eggshell-sized containers, and various implements to which Sirius could not put names.

"Dad won't let us touch anything," James explained, scratching the ears of a large ginger Kneazle stretched out on the back of the sofa. "Says he knows exactly where everything is. But Mum's almost as bad, so it doesn't really matter."

It explained a lot about how his friend could sleep peacefully, sharing his bed as he often did with his school books, half-finished essays, and clothes he had not bothered to put away. Sirius hardly ever put anything away either when he was at school, but his own possessions usually littered the floor around his bed, rather than the bed itself.

"Jamie, is that you?" A smiling, dark-skinned woman poked her head into the room. Her tightly-curled black hair was cropped short and threaded with silver, and she wore it tied carelessly in a brightly-coloured kerchief. A heavenly scent wafted around her.

James's face split into a grin. "I've brought Sirius, Mum. It's OK if he stays for a bit, isn't it?"

"Pleased to meet you, Ma'am." Sirius bobbed his head awkwardly.

The woman's smile widened, echoing her son's. "Sirius! How wonderful to finally meet you! I hope you like treacle tarts; I think I've made too many." She disappeared, presumably back to the kitchen, leaving the scent of treacle in her wake.

"That's my mum," James said unnecessarily.

Sirius shuffled uncomfortably. "She seems all right. Is it really OK if I stay? Your dad won't be angry you didn't ask first?"

James shook his head. "Nah; they're always saying I should invite my friends over. I think they worry about me getting lonely. Want to see my room?"

Sirius followed his friend down a narrow corridor and up the stairs, casting a nervous glance into the kitchen -- every bit as cluttered as the sitting room -- as he passed. Do they not even have a house-elf? he wondered. Much as he loathed the little beasts, he couldn't imagine living in a house of this size without one. Clearly Mrs Potter enjoyed a bit of baking, but who did the other household chores?

James's room carried on the theme of the rest of the house. His bed was neatly made, but it looked as though his school trunk had exploded in the middle of the room. The walls were a riot of brightly-coloured, moving, flashing Quidditch posters, documenting the high points of the past five seasons for the Falmouth Falcons. It was a wonder his friend could sleep.

James turned and caught Sirius's dubious expression. He gave his friend a wry smile. "Don't worry; you'll be in the guest room. It's not quite such a mess as the rest of the house."

Sirius bit his lip. "I don't mean to -- It's just not what I expected."

"It's home," said James with a shrug. "You get used to it. Have you ever played Odin's Eye?"

Sirius shook his head, and James rummaged under the bed for an old wooden box which turned out to contain a boardgame. They each chose a Norse deity, and drew a card telling them their secret goal for the game. The objective was to either achieve one's own goal, or to prevent the other players achieving theirs.

"It's more fun with more people," James told him as he nudged his Baldr counter in amongst the Valkyries. "Maybe if Dad's not too tired one night, we can get him and Mum to play."

Sirius paused in the midst of trying to work out the best way to get his Hodr around the Midgard Serpent without waking it. "You play games with your parents?" he asked incredulously. Such a thing was unheard of in his own home.

"Sometimes," replied James. "When they're not too busy. Sometimes I play with the local kids, too. Muggle games, mostly. There are only a couple of wizards our age around here."

Sirius felt a small twinge of jealousy at the thought of James having friends he didn't know. "Who lives here?" he asked, barely noticing that Hodr had just lost an arm.

"Giles Ogilvie and Davey Gudgeon," said James, naming a Slytherin two years ahead of them and a Hufflepuff in their own year. He had just landed on the space giving him the secret of ale brewing, and was in the process of putting the dragon Fafnir to sleep with the results. "Ogilvie and I used to play one-on-one Quidditch, but we haven't really spoken since I was Sorted. Gudgeon's a bit thick, but he's all right to go exploring with sometimes."

James had almost made it into Asgard to ask a final favour of Odin when Mrs Potter called up the stairs that tea would be ready in ten minutes. His friend called an immediate halt to the game and rose.

"C'mon," he said. "I have to set the table."

Sirius stared at him. "You're joking." This obedient son could not possibly be the same rule-disregarding prankster he knew from school.

"Not everyone has a house-elf to wait on them hand and foot, Black," said James, shooting Sirius a dirty look. "Mum's got enough to do, and if I don't do my bit, I don't get any pocket money. Anyway, it's not hard."

In the dining room, James handed Sirius a stack of plates and pointed at the table.

"Is Dad coming?" he called into the kitchen.

"Don't know," called back Mrs Potter's voice. "But set a place for him just in case, won't you, Jamie dear?"

"'Jamie dear'," Sirius echoed mockingly.

James's ears went pink as he distributed cutlery to the four place settings. "What? Your parents never had any embarrassing pet names for you and your brother?"

Sirius shook his head, unsure why he should envy his friend that. "They don't even like it when I call Regulus 'Regs'. 'Informality is just another name for disrespect'," he said, putting on the snooty falsetto he used to mimic his mother.

They ate egg mayonnaise sandwiches and vegetable soup, followed by the best treacle tarts Sirius had ever tasted. As Mrs Potter served him a third one, unasked, Sirius noticed that her eyes kept wandering back to the empty fourth place setting. He found this very odd behaviour indeed. His father was often away from home on business, but his mother never seemed to care or notice, even when he was late returning. He supposed it was to do with James's father being an Auror. It was a dangerous job, after all.

When she wasn't casting distracted glances, Mrs Potter asked Sirius polite questions about his family, where they lived, and what sorts of things he liked to do. Some of the questions made Sirius squirm uncomfortably, as he was becoming self-consciously aware of how different his own parents were from this kind, smiling woman.

He was relieved when James rose from the table, and quickly followed him to the sink with his plate.

"Thanks, Mum," James said, kissing the cheek she offered him. "Your tarts are the best."

"Thank you very much for the lovely tea, Ma'am," Sirius babbled before fleeing the dining room after his friend. He thought he heard a giggle follow him out of the room.

James snorted. "Why're you acting like that?"

"Like what?" In his discomfort, Sirius had resorted to the polished good manners instilled in him from his early youth, hoping they would carry him through the awkwardness of the situation. Having his behaviour mocked made him feel a bit prickly.

James gave him a you're joking look. "Like you're at tea with the Minister for Magic."

Sirius shrugged uncomfortably. "It's parents, isn't it?"

"It's not your parents, mate," James replied reasonably.

"So sorry if I don't know the correct method of address for your mother," Sirius scowled.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!"

Sirius jumped as Mrs Potter appeared in the doorway.

"How rude of me not to introduce myself properly." She held out her hand to him. "Eleanor Potter. But you can call me Ellie."

Sirius shook her hand automatically, but no words emerged from his open mouth. Ellie? ELLIE?! In twelve years, he had never been invited to address an adult by their given name, unless it was preceded by an honourific like "aunt" or "uncle".

James raised his eyebrows, perplexed by his friend's obvious distress. "We'll be upstairs in my room, Mum. Call us if Dad comes home?"

Once back in James's room, Sirius breathed a sigh of relief. He wondered whether his friends had felt this uncomfortable at his own house. No wonder Remus ran. He quickly squashed the thought. He wasn't about to run away. He was a Gryffindor. Surely he could stand a little awkwardness.

The two boys finished their game, and Sirius privately blamed his loss on his lack of composure. When James asked if he'd like to play again, Sirius replied with a somewhat surly "no". Easy-going as ever, James only shrugged and offered to show Sirius to the guest bedroom to drop off his things. The room was a bit frilly for Sirius's tastes, complete with lacy curtains and bedspread, but at least it was an escape, if he needed it. He rummaged around in his bag for his set of Gobstones and took them back to James's room where they spent the afternoon a little closer to Sirius's comfort zone.

Somewhere in the middle of the fourth game, James's head jerked up, listening intently.

"Ellie?" came a muffled voice from downstairs.

"Dad's home." James scrambled to his feet and hurried down the stairs, Sirius following on his heels.

They halted in the doorway of the sitting room and Sirius blinked in amazement as Mrs Potter flew to her husband's arms. Could these people be any less like his parents? Sirius could not remember the last time he had seen his mother and father so much as touch one another. In fact, the thought of it made his skin crawl.

Mr Potter was a tall, thin man whose short, greying hair stuck up in all directions, rather like his son's. He wore a neatly-trimmed beard and gold-rimmed spectacles and looked nothing like Sirius's expectations of one of the Ministry's top Aurors. He had met an Auror once when his father had allowed Sirius to accompany him on a visit to the Ministry. That Auror -- Mr Moody -- had been a lumpy, lopsided man, who had glared at his father suspiciously, as if about to start interrogating him. There was no resemblance between Sirius's impression and the open, smiling -- if tired -- face of the man before him, warmly embracing his wife.

Sirius elbowed James and raised his eyebrows. His friend shrugged, looking a bit embarrassed, but was not quite able to suppress a smile.

"Where's my boy?" Mr Potter asked, letting go of Mrs Potter at last. "Jamie!"

Sirius trailed after his friend, who allowed himself to be captured in a one-armed hug.

"And who's this?" asked Mr Potter, turning his smiling blue eyes towards Sirius.

"I brought Sirius back with me, Dad," James told his father. "He'll be staying for a while."

"Wonderful!" beamed Mr Potter, holding out his hand. "A pleasure to meet you, Sirius. We were just saying the other day how Jamie needs to invite his friends over. Call me Joe."

Sirius was speechless as he shook the man's large hand. He was certain that, whatever syllables eventually managed to make their way out of his mouth, "Joe" would not be among them.

Supper was, if anything, even more awkward than tea had been. Mr Potter posed many of the same sorts of questions to Sirius as his wife had done, and when Sirius gave the names of his parents, he could have sworn he saw a slight tightening around the man's eyes.

Whatever Mr Potter might think about Sirius's family, he was utterly cordial towards Sirius himself. Sirius, unable to converse easily with these strange adults, retreated further and further into formality the more flustered he became, not speaking unless asked a direct question, and addressing his hosts as "Sir" and "Ma'am". His own parents, he reflected ironically, would have been quite impressed. James, on the other hand, looked as if he was trying very hard not to laugh.

After supper and another round of treacle tarts, Sirius pled the excuse that he hadn't slept much the previous night -- which was true -- and escaped to the frilly sanctuary of the guest room. There, he collapsed onto the bed with a sigh of relief. A knock on the door made him tense, and James poked his head in.

"You OK, mate?"

"Yeah," Sirius replied, faking a yawn. "Just tired. See you tomorrow."

James hesitated, then shrugged. "All right. G'night."

"Night," echoed Sirius as the door closed.

Sirius was tired, but it wasn't sleep he needed so much as room to breathe, and a chance to sort out exactly why James's family made him so uncomfortable, when they were clearly such nice people.

What it came down to, he finally decided, was that "parents" and "nice" were mutually exclusive terms that would not sit comfortably side by side in his mind. Last year, when he had worried that Remus's parents were abusing him, Sirius had accepted the idea easily. As soon as he had discovered Remus's secret and realised that the Lupins could not possibly be hurting their son, he had felt every bit as awkward around them as he felt around the Potters.

Parents are parents, he thought. They don't act like that and they don't talk like that and they don't ask their kids' friends to call them by their given names.

But apparently some of them did. Last year, he had had to readjust his ideas about Gryffindor House, half-bloods and Muggleborns. If he was ever going to feel at ease in the Potters' home, he would have to get over the belief that adults were to be deferred to when required and avoided when possible, but never liked or trusted in the same way Sirius might with someone of his own age. That was asking a bit more than Sirius was willing to give at the moment.

He briefly considered just going home. He'd be miserable there, but at least he knew where he stood. More than anything, he wished he were back at Hogwarts. He had been happy at school. He had known where he fit. But Hogwarts was more than two months away, and for now, he was stuck in a frilly bedroom in a house full of very nice people whom Sirius did not understand at all. With a sigh, he turned on his side, curling up into a ball of misery.

On the nightstand beside the bed was a worn old teddy bear -- probably a relic of James's childhood -- and a stack of books. Perhaps reading would take his mind off his problems. His hand hesitated over the titles. A few were Wizarding romances of the kind which Sirius felt no self-respecting boy would ever touch. The others appeared to be Muggle novels. He recognised one of the titles: The Three Musketeers. It was one of the books Remus liked. His thumb brushed across the gold lettering on the spine, and he remembered the look on Remus's face the previous afternoon, miserable and defeated. Remus probably hated him now, and Sirius could not really blame him. He picked up the book and dropped it into the nightstand drawer, shutting it firmly out of sight.

Then he picked up the bear and turned over, curling himself around it and wishing that his life were as easy as he had been brought up to believe it would be.

Chapter Text

It was still raining the next morning when Sirius awoke. He had half expected an owl from his parents to arrive, demanding his immediate return, but either the expected owl had taken shelter from the weather, or his parents had decided they did not care where their son was. Sirius tried to tell himself that it didn't matter what they thought, but as Ellie Potter, still in her dressing gown, loaded up his breakfast plate with eggs, bacon, toast, fried tomatoes and sausage, he couldn't help wishing that they did care, if only a little.

He spent most of the day hiding out in James's room, playing games. In short order, Sirius became very good at Odin's Eye, beating his best friend at it twice in a row. Once they grew tired of that, they rotated through a few hands of Exploding Snap -- not much fun with only two players -- and Gobstones. They tried one of the Muggle games James owned, but Sirius didn't see much point in a game where nothing moved on its own or blew up or sprayed the players with noxious liquids.

By teatime, Sirius had grown so bored with games that he welcomed James's suggestion that they at least look at the schoolwork they had been assigned over the holidays. It was better to get it out of the way on rainy days, rather than having to do it when the weather was fine. But reading about charms and hexes without being able to try them out was maddening, and Sirius couldn't even look at his History of Magic text without hearing Professor Binns' droning voice in his head.

"Well, what would you be doing if you were home?" James said at last, exasperated, when Sirius complained of boredom for the third time in an hour.

Sirius shrugged. "Dunno. Be bored, I guess. Annoy the house-elf. Booby trap Regs's room. Why? What would you be doing if I wasn't here?"

"Reading. Helping Mum with stuff. Writing to you, probably."

That pulled a reluctant smile to Sirius's lips. "We could do that stuff, I guess."

James eyed him. "I've never seen you read anything you didn't have to, except to find new ways of annoying people, and you don't like my mum."

"I never said I didn't like her," Sirius objected. "I just -- don't get her. Or your dad."

"I don't get you," said James. "I've never seen you have such a hard time talking to anyone."

"They're parents," Sirius said, as if that explained everything.

"So?" said James. "They're just people. How're they any different from McGonagall or Hagrid or the Prewetts or Pete or Remus or me?"

When Sirius couldn't give him an answer, James sighed and pulled out a stack of glossy Quidditch magazines, handing two or three over to his friend.

"Here," he said. "I've been meaning to get caught up on these, if you really don't mind reading."

The Potters were easy enough to avoid, except for mealtimes. Mr Potter worked during the day, and frequently did not return until late in the evening, weekends meaning little in the Auror Office. Despite the rain and Sirius's growing boredom, he continued to spend most of each day in James's room or the guest room, playing games, reading Quidditch magazines, and doing schoolwork. Sometimes he and James would talk, but it was hard to do so without touching on the sore subjects of family or Remus, leaving Quidditch and school as their primary topics of discussion.

On the third morning after his arrival, Sirius's owl, Midnight, brought him a message from his brother.


Mother and Father are Fureous. Are you really staying with blood-traters? You have been acting so Strange ever sense you went to School and got Sorted into Griffindore. It's like you don't care about anything anymore. Father says if you keep discrasing the Family he might write you out of his Will. I don't know if he ment it, but I thout you shoud know. They put me in the Sellar for letting you go and made Kreacher slam his fingers in the door. You probly shoud not write me back. I was not sposed to write to you. Probly not getting Supper tonight when they see your Owl is gone. Hope it was worth it.


Sirius scowled and balled up the parchment, dropping it onto the floor of the guest room in disgust. He tried very hard to believe that his brother deserved everything he got for always siding with their parents and defending that little scab of a house-elf. And yet he could not deny that it had been Regulus who had made his getaway possible. It didn't matter. Sirius couldn't make things better for his brother even if he wanted to. Going home now wouldn't improve either of their situations. If anything, Regulus should be grateful for the chance to be their parents' favoured son after so many years of living in Sirius's shadow.

His brother's letter and the continuing bad weather put Sirius into a foul mood, causing him to snap at James over breakfast. He immediately winced, expecting barbed reproach from Mrs Potter, who had paused in summoning the toast.

Instead, she glanced back and forth between the two glowering boys, and said mildly, "I don't think it's good for you two, holing yourselves up in that dark room all day. The light's better for reading in the sitting room. And there's your father's chess table."

James's eyes lit up. "Can we use Dad's chessmen?"

His mother smiled indulgently. "I don't see why not, as long as you're careful with them."

Sirius didn't like the idea of spending the day in awkward proximity to Mrs Potter, but he didn't see a way out of it, so when they adjourned to the sitting room after breakfast, he went without complaint.

At first, it wasn't so bad. Mrs Potter remained in the kitchen to do the breakfast cleanup while James retrieved a small leather chest with a gilded clasp from a cupboard under the window. It contained a set of ivory chessmen, much-used but beautifully crafted.

"They belonged to my great-great-grandfather," James said softly, stroking a bishop's delicate crook with something like reverence. "They were a gift from a duke or a prince or something. I forget who. Someone important."

The chessmen had known one another for such a long time that they had developed a fraternal regard for their adversaries, and sent them off the board with no more than a genteel tap for form's sake. Sirius should have been bored. What excitement was there in chess if the pieces did not dispatch one another with the maximum amount of violence? He soon discovered, however, that without the distraction of carnage, he was able to focus more on the strategic aspects of the game, the reward for which was a deeper sense of satisfaction with each opposing piece he took.

So absorbed was he in planning his next few moves that he did not notice when his friend's mother joined them in the sitting room, donned her reading glasses, and opened a dog-eared paperback. He did, however, notice when the ginger Kneazle jumped onto his lap and bumped its head demandingly against his chin.

"Barbarossa loves a good scritch between the shoulderblades," commented Mrs Potter, making Sirius start. "Sorry; I didn't mean to break your concentration."

"No matter," mumbled Sirius, stroking the catlike creature as he tried to pull the threads of his strategy back together.

He had thought he was about to win, but in six moves, James had Sirius's king cornered and laying down his tiny ivory sword at the feet of his friend's knight.

James rose and stretched. "Just going to pop to the loo. Back in a minute." And Sirius was left alone with Mrs Potter.

The Kneazle, sensing his discomfort, jumped down from his lap in disgust, and Sirius brushed ineffectually at the whorls of ginger fur that clung to the black fabric of his robes.

"I've got a charm for that," said Mrs Potter.

"Oh," Sirius said eloquently. "Um."

"Come here."

Reluctantly, he approached her. She took out her wand and tapped him smartly on the belly.

"Pili declino." Instantly, every clinging hair dropped to the floor. "Thank you, Ma'am," Sirius said awkwardly. He knew it would be rude to turn away and go back to his seat, so rather than hover, he sat down on the sofa next to her chair.

"That one's a necessity when one has pets." She gave him a friendly smile. "The rain is annoying, isn't it?"


She glanced out the window at the grey sky. "There are things I should be doing with the garden, but I can't until it lets up. I didn't feel like cleaning today, and I finished the afghan I've been working on yesterday, so that leaves an afternoon with Miss Lovelace." She waggled the paperback in her hand. "They're a bit silly, but they're a pleasant way to pass the time."

"I've -- er -- never read her books," mumbled Sirius.

She chuckled. "I wouldn't think you had. Romance novels aren't exactly popular with boys of your age. Next thing, you'll be telling me you don't read Isabella Westwick either."

"The Prewetts said that's the name Professor Flitwick writes under," said Sirius without thinking.

Mrs Potter stared at him for a moment, and then burst out laughing. "Flitwick? Filius Flitwick, the two-foot Casanova? He's Isabella Westwick? Oh, my dear boy, that's the best thing I've heard in years! Please tell me it's true."

Sirius shifted uncomfortably. "I don't know, Ma'am. But the Prewetts say it is, and they're mostly right about things like that."

"I was at Hogwarts with Filius Flitwick," Mrs Potter giggled, wiping her eyes. "He had quite a reputation, but not as a writer. I can't wait to tell Joe. He'll be so tickled!"

"I'm pleased to hear it, Ma'am."

She patted his shoulder. "Oh, do unbend a little, Sirius. I've never been 'Ma'am' in my own home before."

"Sorry, Ma'am." Sirius couldn't help a small, hesitant smile when she laughed again at his slip.

"You can't possibly be like this all the time or Jamie wouldn't be so fond of you," she said, shaking her head. "Now, tell me what kind of biscuits you like best, seeing as the two of you have accounted for all the tarts. Anyone who can make me laugh like that deserves a reward."

The rain finally let up that afternoon, so Sirius was saved from Mrs Potter's suggestion that he assist in the baking of ginger biscuits. Instead, he found himself back in James's room with his friend looking him up and down.

"I've probably got some clothes that will fit you," James said doubtfully. "You can't wander around the village in robes."

Sirius was not so tall or skinny as his best friend was, so the clothing James found for him did not fit particularly well. They were Muggle clothes, though, which gave Sirius the delicious thrill that came from doing something especially wicked. His own clothes were all wandmade in the finest shops in Wizarding London, the cut and colour dictated by the top designers in Wizarding fashion. Denim had never been seen in his wardrobe. And shirts with short sleeves? Unheard of!

When he beheld his reflection in the mirror on the back of James's door, he barely recognised himself. The boy staring back at him with wide, grey eyes looked like he might belong in a house like this -- might have parents like the Potters. Sirius shared a grin with his reflection before turning to his friend.

"How're we going to get past your mum?"

James opened his mouth, then closed it again. "I'll show you."

As they tiptoed past the kitchen, James paused and stuck his head in. "Mum, we're going out."

Sirius stared.

Mrs Potter looked up from her mixing. "What are the rules, Jamie?"

"No wands," James recited dutifully. "No flying where Muggles might see. Be back in time for supper."

"Very good," said his mother approvingly. "It's Irish stew tonight. You boys won't want to miss that. Oh, and no swimming if Sirius doesn't know how."

"It's not warm enough for swimming today, Mum." James rolled his eyes.

"I can't believe she just let us go!" Sirius said as James retrieved his Nimbus 1000 broomstick from the cloak closet next to the front door. "My parents never let me out on my own."

James shrugged. "Well, my parents aren't exactly like your parents, are they? Although," he added fairly, "I don't know if they'd let me wander, either, if we lived in London."

They walked to the outskirts of the village until they reached a stretch of farmland separated from the last row of houses by a screen of trees. James looked around once, then mounted his broom and kicked off, feet skimming the tops of the still-green summer oats.

Sirius whooped and tried to follow at a run, but there was no possible way for him to keep up with his friend's dizzying speed. James swooped back and dived at him, wind whipping Sirius's hair as he passed. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, white ball, which he lobbed at Sirius, who caught it, frowning curiously at the tiny indentations that covered its surface.

"Throw it for me!" shouted James, high above him. "I want to practise!"

They spent an enjoyable half hour, Sirius throwing the ball as hard and as far as he could in every direction, and tearing off to retrieve it whenever James failed to catch it in the air. James was an excellent flier, and only missed his catch about one time in three.

"I'm going to be the best Seeker Gryffindor has ever had!" he boasted, touching down. "Merlin, I missed having my broom last year!"

Sirius's eyes lit up when James handed the broom over to him. He had flown before, many times, but never on a top-quality racing broom like this one. He leapt into the air, yelling his head off as he zoomed high over the field. The wind ruffled his hair, tugged at his clothes, stole his breath, and he felt free for the first time since school had ended. Something hit him between the shoulderblades as he careened wildly through the air. Looking down, he caught sight of James grinning up at him, the white ball in his hand once more.

"I can see you're not going to be much competition, Black," he teased.

"Throw it again and we'll see!" challenged Sirius.

But James was right. Even once he got the hang of handling the broom properly, Sirius managed to catch the ball not quite half the time. After a few dozen throws, he returned to earth breathless and frustrated and beginning to be hungry. He wished they had thought to bring snacks with them.

"Have you got anything to eat?" he asked James without much hope. He was not ready yet to return to the Potter residence, in spite of the easing of tension between himself and Ellie Potter that morning.

James shook his head. "But I know a place where there's almost always tea and cakes. That is, if you don't mind meeting an adult who isn't a parent."

Sirius scowled at his friend, but followed him back to the edge of the village where he stopped in front of a small, neat cottage with a riot of flowers growing in its garden.

"Who lives here?" Sirius asked, peering suspiciously up the walk.

"Batty Bagshot," James grinned. "Best lemon cakes in the West Country."

"Bagshot?" The name rang a bell faintly in Sirius's mind. He knew he had heard or read it somewhere recently. Then a horrible light dawned. "She didn't -- she's not the one who wrote our History of Magic text, is she?"

James's grin widened at Sirius's look of growing horror. "Yeah. But don't worry; she's not nearly as boring as Binns tries to make her."

"Why would I want to have tea with Binns's girlfriend?" asked Sirius, wrinkling his nose.

That made James laugh. "Lemon cakes," he repeated. "And she knows all kinds of stories about Dumbledore from when he was a kid."

"All right," said Sirius. "But if I fall asleep and starve to death, it's your fault."

Tea with Bathilda Bagshot was not nearly so dull as Sirius had feared. Yes, the tiny old woman had gone on a bit about Wizarding history, but the way she talked about it made it sound more like exciting stories and gossip than Professor Binns's dry, droning accounts of endless goblin rebellions and revisions of Wizarding law codes. She referred to Binns as "that old bore", saying that she had been promised the History of Magic post when he retired, but he had hated change too much to give up teaching, even after his own death. She had also regaled them with scandalous tales from the Wizengamot conclave of 1876, giggling and blushing like a girl, and leading Sirius to suspect she had been there in person.

As they departed the cottage, their bellies and pockets full of lemon cakes, Sirius asked, "How old is she, anyway?"

"Dunno," James shrugged. "Old. You saw that picture of Dumbledore with her great nephew. She's got to be at least forty years older than he is, right?"

Sirius had stared for a long time at the black and white photograph of the two laughing boys, not recognising the elderly headmaster of Hogwarts in the face of the wispy-bearded youth with his arm around Bathilda Bagshot's handsome, fair-haired nephew. It seemed like such an impossibly long time ago, and yet those boys had roamed this same village, and judging by the age of most of the houses, Godric's Hollow had perhaps not looked so different then.

As they wandered past an old church, James said, "There are Dumbledores in the graveyard, too. D'you want to see?"

Pushing open the old, rusty lychgate, James beckoned Sirius down the path to the left, into a section of the churchyard containing mostly older stones. The stone James pointed out was granite rather than the marble Sirius had been expecting, and not very large. It bore two names, both women, or rather -- Sirius glanced at the inscribed dates -- a woman and a girl, dead in the same year.

"Who were they?" Sirius asked in a hushed voice, as if anything louder might disturb the sleeping dead.

"Dunno for sure," James shrugged. "I can't remember how old Dumbledore is. I think maybe it's his mum and his sister."

"Are there any more?" asked Sirius, glancing around. "His dad or anyone?"

"No," said James. "This is it."

Sirius felt an odd hollowness in his chest as he looked at the stone and remembered again the laughing boy from the photograph. He wondered what Dumbledore's family had been like, and whether Dumbledore had liked them. Sirius supposed that he had. Tragedy was an alien concept to Sirius, and sympathy was something he had only learned since meeting Remus Lupin and discovering his secret. He found it difficult to imagine what it would be like to lose a loved one. It made him think about Mrs Potter and the relief with which she greeted her husband whenever he returned home.

He turned away from the stone, feeling uncomfortable. "Are there any other cool ones?"

There were several more with names of Wizarding families Sirius recognised, but the oldest stone in the graveyard was not one of them. He could tell it was the oldest by how worn it was. If it have ever bourne any dates, they had rubbed off long ago.

"Peverell?" he squinted to read the name.

"I'm related to him," James said, swelling with pride. "They were a really old Wizarding family, going back to the Hogwarts founders, and maybe even before. The name died out about two hundred years ago, I think, but there was an Ermentrude Peverell before that who married my umpty-great-Grandfather Potter or something."

Sirius, who had been made to stand in front of the drawing room wall and memorise his own family tree, reaching far back into the middle ages, was unimpressed by the ancientness of his friend's lineage. There had been a Potter or two on the Black family tree, which made James distant kin, but he recalled no Peverells. He was, however, surprised by how long James's family had lived in Godric's Hollow.

"Have your family been here all that time?" Sirius asked as they wandered over to an empty patch of grass a couple of rows behind the Dumbledore stone, and sat down to eat the rest of the slightly squashed cakes Bathilda Bagshot had given them.

"Yeah," said James comfortably, reclining on the grass with a cake and a contented sigh, one arm bent behind his head. "The Potters, at least. Mum's family come from the south originally."

Sirius stuffed the last cake into his mouth, envying his friend's sense of belonging. James was as much at ease here, among the graves of his ancestors, as he was in his own bedroom. The Black family mausoleum stood in some distant cemetery which Sirius had only visited once or twice, and the house in Grimmauld Place had been in the family for no more than a century. Sirius's parents might have a hundred valuable heirlooms to pass on to their sons, but they were only objects, devoid of meaning or sentiment in Sirius's eyes.

As the sun began to sink behind the line of trees that guarded the western edge of the village, Sirius shivered. Cakes were all well and good, but it was getting on for supper time, and his stomach growled at the thought of the Irish stew Mrs Potter had promised them.

The bells in the church steeple chimed loudly, making Sirius jump.

"Six o'clock!" cried James in dismay, leaping to his feet. "C'mon! We'll be late."

They dodged past gravestones, jumping the low gate -- James nearly tripping over his broomstick -- and ran flat out for the house, arriving moments later, out of breath, Sirius clutching at a stitch in his side.

"Sorry we're late," James gasped as they stumbled in the front door.

Mr Potter, who was seated on the sofa reading the Evening Prophet, glanced up. "Had a good day in the village, boys?"

"Yes, Sir," Sirius answered automatically. He found himself oddly disappointed that he had missed Mr and Mrs Potter's evening reunion.

Mrs Potter appeared in the sitting room doorway. "Supper's in five minutes," she announced, giving her son a stern look. "Go and wash up, Jamie. Sirius, would you mind giving me a hand in the kitchen?"

Sirius looked helplessly at his friend, who only raised his eyebrows and shrugged before heading to the bathroom. He followed Mrs Potter into the kitchen, but found the table already laid, bowls of stew steaming away under their warming charms. When he looked to Mrs Potter in confusion, she drew something out of her apron pocket and handed it to him.

"I must apologise to you, Sirius," she said earnestly. "I didn't mean to snoop, but I found that when I was tidying up your room today."

Sirius glanced down at the crumpled letter from his brother and swallowed. "It's nothing, Ma'am."

She pursed her lips, looking him over indecisively. "I never thought to ask, and perhaps that's my own fault, but I assumed when you came here that you did so with your parents' permission. But you didn't, did you?"

Sirius hung his head. "No, Ma'am," he said in a small voice. He hated the thought of James's mother being disappointed in him. Had she told her husband yet? Worse still, he was about to be sent home, possibly before he could taste any of the stew, which smelled divine.

"Sirius, dear," Mrs Potter said gently. A hand under his chin forced him to meet her eyes. "If you're having trouble at home, perhaps you should write to them."

He bit his lip. "They don't care where I am. They'd've written if they did." He had been aiming for defiance, but what came out sounded like misery even to his own ears.

Her hazel eyes regarded him with sympathy, and the hand under his chin moved to squeeze his shoulder. "I know things have been -- awkward -- for you here. Of course we've loved having you, but maybe you'd be happier going home and sorting things out with your family?"

Sirius set his jaw. "I'd rather stay here, Ma'am, if you and Mr Potter don't mind."

She gave him a kind smile. "Of course we don't, Sirius. Would you like me and Joe to write to your parents for you? We'll let them know you're safe, and that you're welcome to stay for as long as you like."

"Can I really?" Sirius stared at her in disbelief. His chest felt tight. He was not going to be sent home after all.

"Oh, you poor dear," she sighed, shaking her head. And then her arms were around him and Sirius's face was pressed against a shoulder that smelled of stew and baking and warmth.

Sirius stiffened in shock. Hugs were not entirely foreign to him. On occasion, he hugged James. He used to hug his brother. He had probably even hugged his parents when he was younger, though he could not recall a specific instance. Those embraces, though, had all been brief and perfunctory. Never in all of Sirius's memory had he been held.

"Careful, Mum," came an amused voice from the doorway. "The way he feels about parents, he probably thinks you're planning to smother him."

Sirius blushed crimson as Mrs Potter let him go with a laugh.

All throughout supper he sat with his eyes fixed on his plate, barely speaking, torn between embarrassment and gratitude, hardly tasting Mrs Potter's delicious stew. He only looked up when, over ginger biscuits, Mr Potter declared himself not too tired for a family game night.

Sirius swallowed his horror -- he had been desperately hoping to escape to bed for the night to sort out his feelings -- and took his dishes to the sink, before following James upstairs.

"I have to feed Midnight," he mumbled to his friend, and dashed into the frilly guest room.

Mrs Potter had made her presence felt in the room. The bed was made, the old teddy bear nestled peacefully on the pillows, Sirius's own freshly-laundered robes hung in the wardrobe, and the rest of his things were piled neatly on the bureau. Across the foot of the bed lay an enormous red and gold afghan with a note pinned to it.

Dear Sirius,

I was going to give this to Jamie, but I'd like you to have it. I hear these are your favourite colours.


Sirius blinked rapidly and his throat grew tight. Bundling the blanket in his arms, he hurried to James's room.

"Your mum put this on my room, but I think it's yours," he said hurriedly, dropping it onto the bed.

James just grinned and shook his head. "Keep it. Mum's always knitting something. She'll make me another, and then we'll have matching ones."

Sirius subsided onto the bed. "Do we really have to play games with your parents?" he asked plaintively.

"What're you so worried about?" said James, exasperated. "My parents love you."

"What if I make stupid mistakes and they think I'm an idiot?" Sirius moaned. "Or what if I win and they think I cheated?"

James knelt and pulled the Odin's Eye box from under his bed. "I'm your best mate, aren't I?" he said. "How about you try trusting me for once?"

Sirius wanted to trust James, but the first game was sheer torture. As he had predicted, he sent blind Hodr -- whom he had grown fond of playing -- on a number of foolish and useless moves, allowing both James's Baldr and Mr Potter's Odin to achieve their goals before he was half finished with his own. Sirius strongly suspected that the only reason he did not come in dead last was that Mrs Potter -- playing Odin's wife, the goddess Frigg -- let him beat her.

He was contemplating begging off sick as they set up the board for another round, when Mr Potter reached into the pocket of his robes, and said, "Oh, by the way," laying four silver tokens on the table with a grin.

James took one look at them and yelped, jumping up to throw his arms around his father.

"What --?" said Sirius, startled.

"Quidditch!" James whooped, grabbing Sirius's hands and sashaying him across the dining room. "Falcons v Wasps! Bagman's going to get his bum paddled and we're going to see it!"

Sirius glanced back and forth between the grinning Potters in disbelief. "You got me a ticket, too?"

"Of course he did, Black!" hooted James, performing a graceless little twirl under Sirius's hand. "I'd like to see you be all stiff and formal when there's Quidditch happening!"

"Th-thank you, Sir," Sirius stammered as they returned to their seats. Somehow, the thought of attending an ordinary Quidditch match with James and his parents seemed even better than the two times he had been to the Quidditch World Cup with his own family.

Mr Potter grinned, blue eyes dancing. "Think nothing of it. We're glad to have you along."

Excitement over seeing his beloved Falcons play against the former Slytherin Quidditch Captain wreaked havoc on James's concentration. He stumbled his way through the second game as blindly as Hodr himself, making even more mistakes than Sirius had in the first round. Sirius, on the other hand, made a couple of lucky dice rolls, and found a clever way of sneaking past the Odin counter, effectively blocking him from reaching Valhalla.

Sirius stared at the board in shock. He had just won. He had even beaten Mr Potter, an experienced Auror with a knack for strategy. Glancing up helplessly, he found that his friend's father's startled face mirrored his own.

"S-sorry, Sir," Sirius began. "I didn't mean to --"

Joe Potter threw back his head and shouted with laughter. "Well done, Sirius!" he declared, offering his hand for the boy to shake.

"It was just luck, Sir," insisted Sirius.

Mr Potter shook his head, still smiling. "It was good strategy and well-used luck. And I'm almost certain I've told you to call me Joe."

"I'm sorry, Sir," said Sirius, blushing. "I just -- can't."

"If that's too hard," suggested Mrs Potter with a gentle smile, "you could always just call us Mum and Dad."

Sirius stared at her, speechless. She couldn't possibly mean it. Not like that.

"Not that I'm suggesting we could ever replace your own parents," she went on, giving Sirius's fingers a squeeze. "But we could be a sort of alternative -- if you need it."

"You're a good boy, Sirius," added Mr Potter. "Bright and thoughtful. Jamie needs a brother like that. Ellie and I would be honoured if you'd consider this your second home."

Sirius looked back and forth helplessly between the two kind-faced adults, and his grinning best friend, sitting across from him.

"What do you say, Brother?" asked James.

It was too much. The blanket. The Quidditch tickets. The overwhelming kindness. Sirius opened his mouth -- and much to his horror, began to cry.

"You awake, mate?"

For a moment, Sirius contemplated pretending not to be. They had to be up early for the Quidditch, and he had almost been asleep, so it wouldn't be a complete lie. Instead, he sat up in bed, squinting at the shadowy form of his friend in the doorway.

"C'mon," James whispered.

Sirius didn't ask where they were going as they tiptoed past James's parents bedroom, down the stairs and through the kitchen. He could tell by the way his friend eased open the back door that his mother and father's permissiveness did not extend to late-night excursions, and he had a sudden qualm about breaking their trust. He had been family, after all, for no more than a day, and the open invitation could still be revoked. But James was outside, beckoning him to follow, and James was his best friend.

They padded, barefoot, into the back garden, where James sank cross-legged onto a patch of grass. Sirius sat down facing him, and the two boys regarded one another silently for a moment.

"You're my best mate," James said quietly, "and my brother now, too. If I ask you to do something, will you do it?"

Sirius nodded dumbly.

"Look up."

He did, and found himself staring into the face of the full moon.

"Have you written to him at all?"

Sirius did not have to ask who James meant. He shook his head.

"I have." James's eyes were dark in the moonlight. "I owled him tonight. Asked him to come over and stay for a few days. Pete, too. So you'd better figure out what you're going to say to him. It's up to you to fix it, Brother."

Chapter Text

Dear Remus,

How perfectly dreadful! I know Black can be obnoxious sometimes (no offence meant, you know I'm right) but for him to treat you like that when you're meant to be friends! It's disgusting. It really is. I'd have thought he was better than that at least.

I'm so sorry you had to go through something like that. It's not fair. You don't deserve it. No one does. Well, maybe Black. I'd completely understand if you never wanted to speak to him again. Do you think this will make things really awkward in your dormitory next year? That's the only reason I can see to try and patch things up after him making a scene like that.

Don't let it get to you, though. You don't need friends like him. You've still got me. And from what you said in your letter, it doesn't sound like Potter thought very much of the way Black was acting either. Good for him. Has he written to you at all?

I've been feeling sort of down since we left school. Sev and I aren't really speaking after the way he tried to hex you the last week of term, so it's just been me and Petty this past week. I wish he could learn to let things go. I hope he grows out of it someday once he figures out it never ends well. If he gives me a chance, I will talk to him again about leaving you and your friends alone. Well, maybe not Black. I'd have hexed him for you if I'd been there.

I miss you so much. If you were here right now, I'd give you such a hug! I wish I could come see you, but my parents have this stupid new rule about how I'm not allowed to go to boys' houses anymore, not even Sev's. Can you believe it? We're going down to Brighton in a couple of days, or I'd invite you to come over here, and I've already got plans to visit Dorcas once we get back. I'll find some time for you later this summer, though, I promise!

Take care of yourself and try not to let stupid people get to you.


Remus lay on his bed, glowering at his mother's copy of The Princess Bride, not reading. He wasn't feeling in the mood for Morgenstern's satire on the politics of obscure European principalities. He had been not reading for five days now, but he had only been glowering for two. Before that, he had moped, wallowed, sulked, and brooded, in that order, but had found none of those moods to be any improvement upon the others.

His only respite had come with Lily's answer to the hopeless, angry screed he had sent her upon his return from the Black residence, to which Remus had not yet found the will to reply. Peter's brief letter, in which his friend had pretended nothing had happened, had not helped at all.

At first, Remus had just wanted to hide, barely coming out of his room except for meals, and hardly speaking to his family. But as the days passed and no explanation or apology from his putative friend had been forthcoming, Remus had grown angrier and angrier. At Sirius for being a pure-blood snob. At James and Peter for their tacit acceptance of the status quo. But most of all, at himself for forgetting what the world was really like and for thinking he had a place in it, even for a moment.

He wouldn't make that mistake again. Every time Remus closed his eyes, he saw the scornful face of Sirius Black telling him what an embarrassment he was -- telling him how he had proven Sirius's parents right about half-bloods. Remus could only be thankful that Sirius had never found out his secret. The treatment he might expect if anyone ever discovered he was a werewolf would be ten times worse. The only people Remus could count on were his family, and his family were driving him mad.

As if summoned by the thought, the door to Remus's bedroom creaked open and his mother stuck her head in. "Do you need anything, Sweetheart?" she asked with a worried frown.

Remus slammed the book shut and bounced off the bed to storm past her. "I'm going for a walk."

"Don't stay out too long," she called after him.

Because you'll turn into a monster and kill someone, and then where will we be? he mentally finished for her. Sometimes he wondered morbidly if just giving in to the wolf would simplify his life at all.

He strode down the country lane, shoulders hunched, hands in his pockets, glumly kicking at stones and longing for a return of the rain to chill his moon-fevered skin. They didn't understand -- they couldn't -- what it was like for him, and Remus had no patience left to try to explain it. He almost welcomed the distraction of the coming moon, though swapping one sort of misery for another did not seem like much improvement.

He thought about skipping supper, which was always a tense meal right before moonrise, and going directly to the cellar to lock himself in for the night, but by the time he turned homewards, he was ravenously hungry.

His nine-year-old sister Natalie was in the dining room when he came in, setting the table. She gave him a tightlipped look, but said nothing, continuing to dole out cutlery to the four place settings. Normally the first to rally to her brother's side, she had not said a word to him since he had ordered her out of his room five days before. Remus cast himself into his usual chair and heaved a world-weary sigh. Natalie ignored him.

"Oh, good. You're back." Remus's mother gave him a falsely bright smile and set the casserole she was carrying down on a trivet. "Your father should be home any minute."

Remus's father Marcellus Lupin had trained in Care of Magical Creatures, and until Remus turned six and was bitten by a werewolf, he had worked for the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. The Ministry of Magic, however, had declared Remus's lycanthropy a "conflict of interests", and had let Mr Lupin go. Since that time, Remus's father had taken a string of short-term, low-paying Muggle jobs to support his family. This summer, he was without employment yet again, and had been going door to door, offering his services as a pet groomer and minder, besides performing odd jobs with the help of a little surreptitious magic. Remus's mother Sylvia had picked up the shortfall in their income, taking a part-time job behind the till at a local shop. Money was tight, but they would manage somehow. They always had.

Remus laid his head down on the table. He could feel a throbbing headache beginning behind his eyes, and closed them. He heard the sound of liquid being poured as Natalie filled the glasses, the kitchen door opening and closing, his parents greeting one another, their voices dropping to murmurs.

They were talking about him. Remus knew it. Even with his heightened senses, he could not make out the words, but he knew what was being said, and his jaw tightened as he imagined his tired father saying, "Remus, might I have a word with you?"

Instead, the footsteps that entered the dining room were followed by a hand on his shoulder. The touch made him flinch in spite of its gentleness.

"If you're tired, son, you don't have to take supper."

Remus sat up, answering with a noncommittal grunt. His mother and Natalie brought in the dishes of peas and fresh-baked bread as Marcellus sat down across from his son, regarding him with the same worried frown his wife had worn earlier. Remus didn't want to see it, and looked down at his plate instead.

Dinner was served, and grace was said, with no more than a mumbled "Amen" required of Remus. His father regaled them with the antics of a well-known, ill-mannered local dog it had been his misfortune to walk and bathe that day.

"And after all that, Mr Stevens had the gall to tell me that three pounds is tantamount to daylight robbery. Asked me if I'd take two," Marcellus finished, forking a boiled potato into his mouth.

"I hope you told him you would not!" cried Sylvia indignantly.

Marcellus gave his wife a smile and covered her hand with his. "Not to worry, dear; I insisted. And I told him it would be four next time if the damn thing bites me again."

Remus ground his teeth together and wondered how they could talk so blithely about poorly-behaved, biting canines when he was sitting right there. He kept his eyes down and steadily shoveled food into his mouth, wishing that his father had taken those three pounds and invested in a little red meat. The casserole had chicken in it, but that wasn't what he craved just now.

"How was your day, son?" his father asked, tone carefully light. "Do anything interesting?"

"Fine," he mumbled around a mouthful of peas, adding in an undertone, "Better if people stopped pestering me."

Marcellus's mouth tightened. "Remus, we've talked before about controlling your temper. You have to remember it's just the moon's influence making you feel --"

"The moon can bloody well go get stuffed!" Remus burst out, nearly upsetting his water glass.

"Language, Remus," his mother warned.

Remus ignored her, glaring at his father instead.

Marcellus gave his son a steady look. "I hope you're doing better than this at keeping your emotions in check at school, son," he said evenly. "You could find yourself in very real trouble if you're not."

"Sod school!" Remus growled. "I'm home now, aren't I? The one place in the world where I don't have to hide and lie about being a wizard or a half-blood or a bloodthirsty monster! Why should I have to worry about control here? I'm not some stupid dog that's going to bite you because it doesn't know any better."

"No," Marcellus said calmly. "You don't have to hide here. We're your family, and we love you no matter what. But you do need to show a little common courtesy."

"Well, maybe I would if you'd show me some," Remus snapped. "Can't you people see that all I want is to be left alone?"

"A fine way to speak to your own father!" his mother cried.

"Let me handle this, Syl," his father said quietly, not taking his eyes off his son. "Remus is upset. I understand that. But, son, you need to understand that this is neither an appropriate nor a constructive way of handling these feelings. I'm sorry to have to say this, Remus, but if I don't see some improvement in your attitude before the July and August moons, I'm going to have second thoughts about whether school is the best place for you after all."

"What makes you think I even want to go back there?" Remus snarled. "You think I want to see Sirius bloody Black's stupid face every day? Hear him tell me how worthless I am? Why should I even bother with school when life's never going to get any better no matter what I do? How can I be part of a world that treats me like dirt for being a half-blood? Because you know it's going to be a million times worse when they find out what I really am!"

"You don't mean that, Remus," said Marcellus coolly.

"Don't I?" Remus challenged. "You know I'm right. You think I don't remember how those people at the Ministry looked at me? It doesn't matter what I do; I'm always going to be scum."

"Remus," sighed his father, scrubbing a hand through his brown hair. "There's no point arguing about this right now. We can talk about it later."

Remus had opened his mouth for another scathing reply when his mother gave a startled exclamation.

"Natalie, what --?"

Remus turned to see his sister standing in the doorway. He hadn't even noticed her leave the room. Her brown eyes shone with determination, and between her hands, she held his wand.

"I'll break it," she said, eyes fixed on her brother's. "I swear I will."

"Now, Nat," their father warned, half rising from his seat.

"Why not?" Her voice quavered, but rang with defiance. "He doesn't want it. He said so. Didn't you? You said you didn't want to go back to school. If you're not going to be a wizard, you don't need this."

Remus growled low in his throat and advanced a step towards the girl. "You give me that right this minute, Bratalie." How could she, of all people, betray him like this?

"Remus John Lupin!" cried their mother. "I have told you before, you are never to call your sister that!"

Natalie did not give an inch. "If you touch me, I'll break it," she warned again.

He stopped short. It wasn't her words that halted him, but her fear. It didn't show in her voice or on her face, but she was trembling, and Remus could smell it on her. In all of his six years as a werewolf, he could not remember his sister ever being afraid of him.

"You get to be a wizard, Remus," she said fiercely, blinking back the tears she wouldn't let fall. "You get to go to Hogwarts and learn magic and do all kinds of things I can't, and you're swanning about like it's the end of the world just because one of your idiot friends said something stupid. If you'd stop feeling sorry for yourself for a second, maybe you'd remember that you've still got me, and you've got Lily and James and Peter. Or aren't we as good as being friends with Sirius Black?"

Remus stared at her, lost for words. "Nat --" he said at last, plaintively, stretching out a hand to her. "Don't -- don't break it."

"Remus --" His father was behind him, a hand on his shoulder. "It's almost sunset," he said gently.

He swallowed heavily, eyes flicking back and forth between his fierce-eyed sister and grim-faced mother. The back of his neck was beginning to prickle. He could feel the wolf coming.

Without another word, he stumbled past Natalie and out of the room. Behind him, he heard his sister's sob, and his father's affectionate murmur. "My brave lioness."

Pain. Cold. Dark. Hard. Sharp.

His father's voice. "Come on, Love. Time for bed."

Then quite a lot more pain because he was being moved, but there were also his father's arms, warm, supporting, carrying him.

"Sorry, Dad," he mumbled. "Sorry. Didn't mean it. Love you."

"Shhh. I know, son. Hush, now."

Grey dawn light stabbing needles into his eyes, into his brain. Eyelids squeezed shut against it. His bed, soft beneath him. Cool ointment. His mother's calloused hands, soothing.

"Sorry," he whispered again.

His father's hand, cool on his forehead. A gentle caress. Voice filled with exhaustion, filled with fondness.

"I love that you've got fire in you, son. You just need to find better ways to use it."

Someday, Remus wouldn't be twelve and skinny and his father wouldn't be able to carry him anymore. And that, Remus thought as he sank into sleep, would be the saddest day of all.

Remus knew it was a dream, because the dog wasn't real. It never had been.

"Padfoot!" he called. "Padfoot, where are you?"

When he was small, the great black dog had visited his dreams often, playing with him all night long and protecting him from nightmares. Then Remus had met the wolf, and he had not dreamed of his furry protector again until the previous year when he had started at Hogwarts. But the dreams he had now were different from those of his childhood. The dog never appeared, though Remus knew it was somewhere nearby, hiding just out of sight. If he could only find it --

"Padfoot!" he called again, stumbling through the darkness. Surely the dog had been there only a moment before.

"Remus, are you OK?"

Remus cracked an eye open and beheld the fuzzy, blonde outline of his sister. "Morning, Nat," he whispered, wincing as the words crackled in his dry, scratchy throat.

"Afternoon actually, Sleepy," she said. Her smile was hesitant. "I wouldn't've woken you, but there's an owl."

He sat up too quickly and had to clutch at his swimming head to keep it on his shoulders. "Wha-what colour is it? The owl?"

Natalie's pale eyebrows drew together in concern. "Brown and sort of fluffy. Why?"

Annoyed with himself for wanting the bird to be Midnight, Remus picked up the small scroll of parchment that his sister had dropped onto his bed. He broke the seal, but hesitated before unrolling it.

"Nat -- you didn't actually break my wand last night, did you?" The memory was confused and disjointed.

"Of course not, silly." She rolled her eyes.

Remus sighed with relief. "Oh. Good."

"Not that you didn't deserve it," she added, crawling up onto the bed beside him.

"I know." He lowered his eyes, ashamed. "I'm sorry, Nat. I shouldn't've yelled."

"Who's the letter from?" she asked rather than reply.

Remus unrolled the scroll and glanced at it. "James," he said.


Just writing to invite you over for a few days, if you're up for it. Before you crumple this up and throw it away, I promise my folks are ace and they don't give a toss about stupid things like blood purity. I don't blame you for leaving. I hated it there, too, but someone had to stay and knock some sense into Sirius.

It's only fair I should warn you that he's here, too. I hope that doesn't put you off coming. If he starts being an arse again, I promise I will personally punch him in the face, but I don't think he will. I think he knows what a tosser he was, and I think he's sorry for it. He might even tell you so if you come.

Anyway, let me know. Mum and Dad say you're welcome anytime.


P.S., I've got your overnight bag. Thought you might want to come get that, at least.

Remus shook his head. "He wants me to come over for a few days."

"Told you you still had friends," said Natalie. "You should go."

He sighed. "Sirius is there, too."

"So?" she challenged. "Are you scared of him or something?"

"No, it's just --" Remus waved the parchment helplessly. "What if he makes a scene again?"

His sister gave him an intelligence-questioning look. "Just tell him to stop being a git and walk away."

Remus couldn't help but smile. "I wish I was as brave as you, Nat. You can glare down a werewolf, and I can't even look a spoiled brat in the eye."

"Course you can," she insisted. "I'd do it for you."

Ignoring his aching muscles, Remus wrapped his little sister in a fierce hug, making her squeak.

"I know you would," he told the top of her head. "I wish you could come to Hogwarts, Nat. You'd be a Gryffindor for sure."

Natalie wanted to go with them, but they couldn't afford the extra Floo powder, so it was just Remus and his father who arrived in the Potters' sitting room in Godric's Hollow four days later. Remus had showed his parents James's letter, and while they were relieved to hear that the Potters were likely nothing like the Black family, Marcellus had still insisted upon meeting them in person.

James was lounging on the sofa, reading a Quidditch magazine, when they arrived. Remus was relieved to see that Sirius was nowhere in sight. His friend flashed him a grin before hurrying over to the front door.

"Mum!" he called, leaning out. "They're here!"

A plump black woman came in, dusting her hands off on her skirt. "Sorry; I was just in the garden. It's been too wet to plant the fairy flax before now. Eleanor Potter."

She shook hands with Remus and his father, beaming at them both. Remus was surprised to find that he was almost as tall as James's mother.

"A pleasure to meet you, Remus. And this will be your father?"

"Marcellus Lupin," Remus's father introduced himself.

"So young and handsome," Mrs Potter dimpled up at him, making Marcellus's ears turn pink. "I was probably long gone from Hogwarts by the time you got there."

"Mum!" cried James, scandalised.

"Oh, hush, you," she said, smacking her son lightly on the back of the head. "Your mother's not dead yet."

Marcellus cleared his throat. "It's all right if Remus stays for a few days, then?"

"Any friend of Jamie's is welcome to stay for as long as he likes."

Remus couldn't help smiling into Mrs Potter's dancing hazel eyes. "I'll be fine, Dad. You can go home."

"Have a good time, son." Remus's father gave him a one-armed hug. "Owl us if you need anything, and try to be home in a week or so."

Mrs Potter took down an alabaster dish from the mantelpiece and offered it to him. "Thank you for letting us borrow Remus, Mr Lupin. My husband sends his apologies for not being here to greet you, but you know what they say about Aurors' hours."

"All the clock can hold and more," Marcellus acknowledged with a wry smile. "I'm glad to know Remus is in good hands. A pleasure to meet you, Mrs Potter, James." He nodded to each of them in turn before vanishing in a whirling flash of green.

"Jamie, why don't you show Remus where to put his things?" said Mrs Potter. "Is lamb all right with you boys for supper tonight?"

Remus's mouth began to water despite the fact that he had eaten lunch just before leaving home. "Lamb sounds wonderful, Mrs Potter."

His friend's mother returned to her garden, and James beckoned Remus towards the stairs, then hesitated.

"He's up in my room playing Gobstones with Pete," James said, answering Remus's unasked question.

"Pete's here, too?" Remus wasn't surprised, but it was easier than asking anything about Sirius.

James nodded, grinning. "He got here two days ago. Sirius has already kicked him out of the guest room for snoring. Says he has to listen to it all year when at least there's two sets of drapes between them, and he shouldn't have to hear it all summer, too."

"So -- where am I sleeping?"

James bit his lip. "Yeah. I wanted to talk to you about that. Pete's staying on the sofa down here now, and I've only got a single bed. If you're not OK sharing the guest room, you can have mine, and I'll bunk up with Sirius."

Remus hesitated. "I don't want to kick you out of your own room. What did he say about it?"

"He says at least you don't snore," James shrugged. "He knows he was an arse, you know. He wants to change."

"Yeah, well, I guess we'll see," mumbled Remus.

"Guest room?" James raised his eyebrows inquiringly.

"S'pose so. For now."

He followed James up the stairs, down a narrow hallway, and into a small room containing little besides a wardrobe, nightstand, and a double bed, spread with a large red and gold afghan.

"You can throw your things in the wardrobe, if you like," said James. "We'll be just down the hall."

Remus found the overnight bag he'd left in his precipitous departure from number twelve, Grimmauld Place in the wardrobe, and began slowly unpacking it and the clothes he had brought with him, chiding himself for feeling so nervous. His mouth was dry and his palms were damp and he sensed the presence in the doorway behind him before the other boy spoke.


"Hey." Remus did not look up, but carefully shook out a shirt and hung it in the wardrobe, hoping he didn't look as edgy as he felt.

"How've you been?" He could hear the uneven shuffle of Sirius's feet.

"All right."

"You never wrote."

Remus glanced up in surprise. Sirius was leaning against the doorframe, looking entirely unlike himself in rolled-up denims and a too-small tee-shirt, hands in his pockets, staring at his shoes. It was hard for Remus to believe this was the same boy who had mocked and sneered at him not ten days before.

"Neither did you," Remus reminded him carefully.

"Didn't figure you'd want to hear from me." Sirius raised grey eyes to meet Remus's and took a visible breath. "I was a complete prat. I don't want to be like that."

A reluctant smile tugged at the corner of Remus's mouth to see the usually self-possessed Sirius Black looking so off-balance. "I don't really want you to be like that either."

"I'm glad you decided to come." Sirius's eyes were back on the floor. "I just wanted to say -- I know what I'm like, and it's nothing to do with you."

And that, Remus thought, was all the apology he was ever likely to get. He nodded his acceptance as his hand closed around the crinkle of paper, deep in his overnight bag. He pulled the object out and turned it over in his hands.

"Here," he said, holding it out to the other boy. "I meant to give it to you for your birthday, but -- I guess I forgot."

Sirius stared at him, openmouthed. "You got me a present?"

"It's nothing," Remus told him, dropping the small package into the other boy's outstretched hand. "I just -- thought you might like it."

He watched nervously as Sirius tore off the paper and stared at the brass-handled pocketknife. It was probably the least-fancy gift anyone had ever given him.

"My dad gave me one when I turned ten," Remus explained. "He said every boy should have one, and I thought maybe you didn't. There's a sharpening charm on the blade, so it'll never go dull. I'm sorry it's not very good, I just didn't know what else to --"

Sirius was shaking his head slowly back and forth. "I'm a complete tosser." He looked up, lost. "It's brilliant. I love it. Remus, I --"

Remus took a stunned half-step back as Sirius blundered into him, throwing his arms haphazardly around Remus's neck.

"You should be punching me in the face," Sirius mumbled into his shoulder, "not giving me presents."

Hesitantly, Remus patted his friend on the shoulder. "Maybe. But I think I like this way better."

The rest of the afternoon was spent playing games in James's room, which, once Remus saw the riot of moving Quidditch posters on the walls, he was glad he had turned down. James and Peter both seemed relieved to see their friends reconciled, but neither boy said a word about it, James merely grinning at both of them as he explained to Remus the rules to a boardgame involving Norse deities.

It was quite a simple game, once Remus got the hang of it, and his Vidar quickly began to beat James's Baldr, Sirius's Hodr and Peter's Loki. James and Sirius protested his wins vociferously, demanding rematch after rematch until Mrs Potter called them down for supper.

The roast lamb was delicious. While his own parents did their best to put enough food on the table, there was rarely as much protein as a growing werewolf needed, and he had to try very hard not to stuff himself at the Potters' table. Even so, Mrs Potter beamed and complimented his appetite as she served him a third helping of the tender meat.

Mr Potter, who had arrived home just before supper, looked a lot like his son, and was every bit as friendly as his wife, courteously asking Remus questions about himself, which Remus did his best to answer between mouthfuls. They and James and even Peter made Remus feel almost at home.

He was still feeling awkward around Sirius, who hadn't said much to him since their clumsy hug in the guest room. However, Sirius's demeanor around James's parents went a long way to warming Remus's feelings towards his prodigal friend. The dark-haired boy was not just on his best behaviour, saying "please" and "thank you" to everything, but seemed to hang on the Potters' every word, shyly calling Mrs Potter "Mum" when he thanked her for the sticky toffee pudding she brought out after the meal. Like a stray who's finally found a good home, he thought, amused.

"Aren't James's parents brilliant?" whispered Sirius later that night in the darkness of the guest bedroom. "His mum gave me this blanket." He tugged at the red and gold bedspread.

"They seem really nice," Remus agreed, gazing up at the ceiling.

"Better than nice," Sirius's sleepy voice was full of unguarded affection. "Dad -- Mr Potter -- he took us to the Quidditch the other day. Did James tell you?"

Remus shook his head. "I guess they must be pretty amazing. They put up with you, after all." He bit his tongue, suddenly unsure whether they were on firm enough ground for the easy teasing they had once enjoyed.

Much to Remus's relief, Sirius chuckled. "Yeah, they do, don't they? But so do you."

"Looks like," said Remus, wondering if there was anyone Sirius Black couldn't charm if he had a mind to. Snape, maybe.

"Y'know," slurred Sirius, "f'I dint already have a bes' mate ...."

Remus left the thought unanswered, and within minutes, Sirius's breathing had taken on the slow rhythm of sleep. Although Remus was tired, too, he found it harder to relax into oblivion.

To sleep beside another person was an act of trust, and he knew he had been foolish to trust someone like Sirius. Sirius would always run hot and cold. It was his nature, as much as caution was Remus's. But that was part of what drew him to the other boy. He was so very different from Remus that he was like an exotic species. It was always all or nothing with him -- there were no half measures -- and Remus could not help admiring that just a little.

Sirius asleep was a very different prospect from Sirius awake. Awake, he was in perpetual motion, overflowing with energy and exuberance. Asleep, his presence was strangely comforting, undemanding. It was almost like having his sister there, or Lily, or maybe a dog. He slept easily and bonelessly beside Remus. Clearly trust was not a problem for him.

He wouldn't if he knew, the small cold voice at the back of Remus's thoughts reminded him.

If Sirius or the others ever found out his secret, the scene at Grimmauld Place would be the least of it. They weren't like Lily, who had accepted him without question, even after he had been forced to tell her the truth. She was Muggleborn. They were pure-bloods, who had been raised with prejudice against his kind since before they could walk.

Remus had known since he accepted his place at Hogwarts that he could be found out at any time, and that if he was, the extreme likelihood was that he would be sent home in disgrace. But somehow he had never considered how his friends might react upon finding out he was a werewolf -- finding out he had lied to them. He could easily imagine Sirius scornful and mocking. Hatred he was prepared for, but what about violence? There were three of them. Would they be too afraid to attack him? Would they be too afraid not to? Remus might be able to defend himself against them, but would he? That was a scenario he could not picture, and did not want to.

He looked over at Sirius, who had flopped himself over onto Remus's arm. Pins and needles were beginning to twinge in his fingers, but he was reluctant to move and risk waking the sleeping boy. He realised how precious Sirius's friendship, and the friendship of his other roommates, had become to him, even as he acknowledged that those treasured connections were too fragile to survive the discovery of his secret.

Don't get too attached, he told himself. Enjoy it while it lasts, but don't depend on it. You know it's only temporary. You and Lily may be friends forever, and you've always got Nat and Mum and Dad. But Sirius and the others -- they're just friends for now.

Chapter Text

"Shhh," muttered Remus. "I've almost got it."

He was lying on his belly on the floor of James's room, fiddling with the dial of an old radio, searching for something. After a moment, a loud and bouncy melody blared forth.

Sirius's brow furrowed. "What's that?"

"Pick of the Pops," Remus told him. When this provided no illumination, he explained, "It's Muggle music."

"Oh," said Sirius, leaning forwards, interested.

It wasn't that he hadn't known Muggles listened to music; he had just never given it much thought. The only thing Sirius had ever listened to on the radio was the Wizarding Wireless Network, and he hadn't heard much of that, since his parents believed that much of the Wizarding media had a pro-Muggle bias.

"How does it work?" he asked, picking the device up and turning it over in his hands. He had always assumed that radios were magical objects. It had never occurred to him that Muggles might know about them.

Remus tried to explain about waves that carried sound silently through the air, but in the end, it turned out he didn't really understand it either.

"So, Muggles have their own magic?" asked Peter.

Remus shrugged. "Sort of. Only they call it 'science'."

"And Muggles have their own music," Sirius mused, head cocked to listen. "It's better than ours."

Sirius's parents' music, when they listened to it at all, was boring and slow and hardly ever had words. By contrast, the music coming from the radio was light and fast and fun. It made Sirius want to dance.

Apparently James felt the same way. He hopped off the bed and began to move his feet and wave his hands in the air unselfconsciously. He looked so ridiculous that Sirius couldn't help laughing, but it wasn't long before he and even Peter had joined James in the middle of the room, stamping their feet and shaking their backsides to the beat of the music.

Remus sat with his back against the bed and watched them, chuckling.

"Aren't you going to dance with us?" Sirius called out.

The other boy shook his head. "I don't dance."

"But you're the one who likes this stuff," Sirius argued, swinging Peter around in a haphazard circle.

"It's all right," Remus admitted, "but it's not my favourite. Pick of the Pops only plays what's really popular right now. There's lots of other music I like better."

"Like what?" Sirius danced over to him. "Can we listen to it?"

Remus looked doubtful. "They play some of it on the radio sometimes, and I have a few records at home. You might not like it very much, though. It's not as fast as this."

"Don't care." Sirius collapsed into a sitting position on the floor beside his friend. "I want to learn all about Muggle music. Teach me, O wise Professor Lupin."

It was only with difficulty that the others managed to pry Sirius away from the radio, even for meals. Remus had given up trying to get him to do more than turn the thing down at night, and had fallen asleep to the quiet strains of some late-night jazz number. By the following morning, Sirius had formed strong opinions about a few musical genres, and had begun to throw around terms like "prog rock" and "psychedelic" as if he knew what they meant. Remus found his friend's new obsession equal parts amusing and irritating.

"C'mon," whined Peter. "It's boiling out and James's mum said we could go swimming."

"Just one more song," Sirius begged.

"We could take it with us," suggested Remus. "It's wireless, after all."

That possibility had clearly not occurred to Sirius. His face lit up. "We could?"

James rolled his eyes. "Now you've done it, Lupin. We'll never have a quiet moment again."

While James, Peter and Sirius changed into their swimming trunks, Remus returned to the guest room to retrieve the copy of The Three Musketeers that he had discovered in the drawer of the nightstand. He thought wistfully about what it would be like to join his friends in the water -- he had always enjoyed swimming when he was little -- but he didn't want to deal with the awkward questions that would arise from exposing his scar-riddled skin to the light of day. No matter how hot the weather, it was always going to be trousers and a long-sleeved shirt for Remus. He tried to ignore the odd looks his friends cast in his direction as they headed down the stairs.

James stuck his head out the kitchen door into the back garden. "Mum! We're going down to the swimming hole!"

"Have you got enough towels?" Ellie Potter asked, rising from her herb garden to come over and inspect them.

"Yes, Mum," said James with good-humoured impatience.

"And do you all know how to swim?" she inquired, eyeing each of them in turn.

James and Peter both nodded, but Sirius looked down at his shuffling feet.

"Sirius?" she asked pointedly.

"No, Mum," he whispered.

Mrs Potter turned a hard look on her son. "James Potter, don't you dare let him go into water that's more than waist deep. Am I understood?"

"Yes, Mum," James repeated dutifully.

"Remus, dear, do you need swimming trunks? I might have some old ones of Joe's lying around somewhere."

"No, thank you, Mrs Potter," Remus said politely, eyes downcast. His cheeks felt hot. "I'm just going to read."

"Well, if you change your mind, it's not far to come back," she told him kindly. "And no wands!" she called after them as they hurried out the front door.

"You really can't swim?" Peter asked Sirius, dancing along as the hot pavement burnt his feet.

Sirius scowled. "My parents didn't think it was a necessary skill for a well-bred gentleman, I guess."

"Well, don't worry; we won't let you drown," laughed James, slapping him on a bare shoulder.

"Might be some gold in it for you if you did," said Sirius darkly. "Mother and Father probably think I'm not worth the trouble anymore."

"They're still your parents," Remus reminded him uneasily. "Maybe they don't always act like it, but they must care."

Sirius opened his mouth, the expression on his face making Remus cringe in anticipation of harsh words, but he changed his mind and closed it again. "Yeah. Sure they do."

Sirius's dark mood was forgotten when they reached the swimming hole just outside the village. It was a wide pool, bubbling up from an underground spring, and a number of large oak and ash trees grew close to the water, a rope dangling from the thick branch of one, almost touching the surface.

"If it gets wet, it might stop working," said Remus, reaching for the radio clutched protectively in Sirius's arms. "I'll keep an eye on it."

Settling himself in the shade of a huge spreading oak tree, Remus opened the book he had brought to a favourite passage from the adventures of d'Artagnan. He was soon immersed in the romance and intrigue of seventeenth century France, while his friends yelled and splashed one another, shrieking at the initial chill of the water.

It was a hot day, even in the shade, and Remus paused between chapters to remove his socks and shoes. He even went so far as to unbutton the top two buttons of his shirt, and the cuffs as well, eyeing the other boys enviously. James and Peter were instructing Sirius in the rudiments of swimming, and he seemed to be gaining confidence, paddling around in circles, dark hair plastered to neck and forehead.

Sirius was so different here. Miles away from the priggish boy Remus had glimpsed in London, but different, too, from the way he was at school, where he tried so hard to seem cool and grown up. Here, away from the eyes of strangers and the expectations of his family, Sirius was a child. Remus wondered when he had last been permitted that freedom. Remus himself had not experienced it in more than six years -- not since the day he met the wolf.

He had drifted dreamily back into the world of Athos, Porthos and Aramis when Sirius flopped down beside him with a sigh, a thick blue towel wrapped around his shoulders.

"Having fun?" Remus asked, glancing up.

"Swimming is hard work," complained Sirius.

Remus smiled. "Handy, though. You never know when the Slytherins will get fed up with your pranks and decide to dump you in the lake."

"There is that." Sirius grinned, reclining against the tree's rough bark.

Remus looked at him for a long moment.


"Nothing. I was just thinking that the Slytherins probably wouldn't recognise you right now. You look almost like a Muggle."

Sirius looked pleased. "Do I?"

"I almost don't recognise you," said Remus, shaking his head. "I couldn't believe it when I first saw you in Muggle clothes."

"I'd be roasting if I was in robes right now," frowned Sirius, wiggling his muddy toes. "Merlin, I don't think I ever want to wear robes again! They're all tight around the collar and always dragging into things."

Remus snorted. "Good luck with that at school. I'm sure McGonagall would have something to say about it."

Sirius laughed. "Well, first I'd have to get some Muggle clothes. I don't guess I can keep wearing James's."

"Not when you're looking almost as well-fed as Pete these days," Remus teased.

"Oi!" Sirius looked indignant. "Just because I'm not a broom handle like you and James --"

"Anyway, you're a nightmare on clothes," Remus continued. "My favourite jumper hasn't been the same since you borrowed it last winter."

"I liked it," grumbled Sirius.

"Sirius Black likes one of my ratty old things?" grinned Remus. "What is the world coming to?"

Sirius couldn't help a smile at that. "Your things aren't so bad. At least your clothes are comfortable. Not like mine."


Remus plucked absently at his shirt as they watched James and Peter take turns on the rope swing. James kept trying to go higher and higher, swinging farther out over the water. Peter looked terrified, always clinging to the rope a second too long, and splashing back into the shallower water.

"You know you could swim if you wanted to," Sirius said quietly. "They won't say anything."

Remus tensed. He had almost forgotten that Sirius had seen his scars, it had been so long since the other boy had mentioned them.

"Did you tell them?" he asked stiffly. He drew his knees up to his chin, self-consciously tugging the cuffs of his trousers down to hide his feet.

Sirius hesitated. "I told James," he admitted. He must have seen the tightening of Remus's jaw, because he quickly added, "I was worried about you. If Pete knows, he hasn't mentioned it."

"So, when you said they wouldn't say anything --"

"James won't," Sirius insisted. "And if Pete opens his mouth, I'll drown him."

A reluctant smile tugged at the corner of Remus's lips. Sirius could be a loyal friend when he wanted to. "Thanks. I just don't think I'm ready for that."

As Remus watched his friend shrug off the towel and saunter back down to the water, skin glowing in the summer sunlight, he wished for the millionth time that he had never met the wolf.

Mrs Potter was no slouch at divining the needs of her foster son. "There are a few things I need to pick up in town today," she told them over breakfast. "I was wondering if you boys would like to come with me? Sirius, dear, I thought you might like some new clothes."

Remus saw Sirius's face light up, and quickly added his voice of assent to the outing, despite the fact that he had only a little pocket money with him. It would be worth the trip to see what sorts of Muggle clothes his friend picked out for himself.

The five of them took a coach from Godric's Hollow to the nearby town, arriving on the high street around midmorning. Remus could tell by the way Sirius stared at their surroundings that he had not spent much time in Muggle towns, nor traveled by Muggle means, but before his friend's eyes could get too big, James's mother commanded all their attention.

"I need to pick up a few things for the garden and visit the apothecary." Her tone brooked no nonsense. "You see that fountain in the square over there?"

They all nodded.

"I want you to meet me there at one o'clock, and not a minute later," she informed them. "Jamie, you have your watch?"

"Yes, Mum." James pulled back the cuff of his shirt to show her.

"Good. Now, spending money," she continued, retrieving her billfold from her handbag. "This is a Muggle place, so Galleons and Sickles won't do you any good, and I expect that's all you have."

Remus tried to give back the five pound note she handed him. "I've got Muggle pocket money with me."

"Nonsense," Mrs Potter waved away his protests. "It's only fair if I'm paying for the others. Besides, I've heard you're the responsible one, so consider it payment in advance for keeping everyone else out of trouble." She gave him a wink.

Remus smiled reluctantly and pocketed the note. It brought his total spending money up to nearly seven pounds, which was more than he'd had to spend all at once since he got his sister her own owl at Christmas.

There was something about shopping on the high street without adult supervision that made Remus feel grown up, and he unconsciously walked a little taller. He and his friends peered in at shop windows and debated the merits of the merchandise on display.

"What do you think?" James asked him as they stopped in front of a window whose mannequins wore shiny shirts and tight trousers.

Remus looked surprised. "Since when am I the one you lot ask about fashion?"

James grinned. "You've spent the most time in the Muggle world. Who else is going to tell us what stylish blokes are wearing these days?"

"If you want the latest fashions, it's going to cost you more," Remus said thoughtfully. "Do you know if there's an Oxfam around?"

"What's Oxfam?" asked Peter, looking up and down the street for clues.

"It's a charity shop," Remus explained. "People donate clothes they don't want anymore, and they sell them off cheap."

Sirius wrinkled his nose in disgust. "You want us to buy clothes some Muggle already wore?"

Remus blushed. Most of his own clothes had come from charity shops. It was all his parents could afford anymore, and he was well aware of the stigma attached to it.

But James laughed. "Your mum and dad would hate that, Black!"

Sirius hesitated, then a wide grin spread across his face. "Yeah, they would, wouldn't they? Probably throw them out the second I sent them down to the laundry."

They stopped to ask directions from a young mother with two small girls trailing behind her, and the four of them headed down the high street. Remus kept glancing at shop windows, touching the money in his pocket, and thinking about what he would like to buy. He knew the responsible thing to do would be to save the money and slip it into his mother's handbag when he got home, but he knew Mrs Potter had given it to him with the expectation that he would buy something for himself, and would probably ask him about it later. He gazed wistfully at a bookshop, but he knew exactly how his friends would react if he tried to drag them inside.

The Oxfam, when they found it hidden away down a side street, was small, but had a good selection of clothing that looked almost new. Remus browsed the racks while his friends grabbed armloads of clothes more or less at random and hauled them into the small changing cubicle. When Sirius came out in a pair of denim trousers and an orange satin shirt with rhinestone buttons and wide, diaphanous sleeves, Remus could not suppress a snort.

"What?" asked Sirius, defensive. "What's wrong with it?"

"Nothing," Remus told him, shaking his head and smiling. "It looks -- really great."

Peter cocked his head and gave Sirius's outfit a long look. "Is that -- isn't it a girl's shirt?"

Sirius's mouth dropped open, and he looked to Remus for confirmation. The laughter of his three friends followed him as he dove, red-faced, back into the changing cubicle.

"You could've said something," grumbled the muffled voice from behind the curtain.

"Well, if you really want to shock your parents --" laughed James, turning to admire himself in the shop's full-length mirror. He was wearing flared velvet trousers, a too-large shiny blue blazer, and a wide-brimmed hat.

"Not sure I'm ready to go that far," said Sirius testily, reemerging in a blue satin shirt. "Is this more manly, then?"

"A bit," Remus smiled.

"I don't see how we're supposed to tell the men's clothes from the ladies' anyway," said Peter, holding up a polka dot shirt critically. "They're all shiny fabrics and crazy colours. At least with robes, it's all the same."

After some deliberation, Sirius bought the denim trousers, a Rolling Stones tour shirt he had chanced upon -- "A shirt with pictures of Muggles on it!" he crowed, clearly imagining what his parents would think of that -- as well as a plain blue tee-shirt, and the boys toted their purchases back out into the sunlight.

"Didn't you want to get anything?" Peter asked.

Remus shook his head. "Didn't see anything I liked."

The Oxfam had been at the far end of the high street, so they doubled back, walking more slowly this time, and stopping for ice creams along the way. They were halfway back to the fountain when a loud rumble assaulted their ears. The four boys leapt out of the way as a motorbike growled past, its leather-clad rider heedless of the pedestrian traffic around him.

"What was that?" gasped Sirius, staring after the disappearing bike.

"Some git on a motorcycle," Remus scowled. "Thinks he bloody owns the road."

"I want one," said Sirius immediately. "Where d'you buy them?"

James laughed. "I don't think even you have enough for one of those, mate."

Sirius was still staring off into the distance, eyes shining. "Did you see how fast and shiny and loud and bloody gorgeous it was? My parents would hate it!"

"I'm pretty sure you have to be at least eighteen to even own one," said Remus

Sirius looked disappointed, but continued to wax rhapsodic over the vanished bike, ice cream forgotten. "Can you imagine zooming around on one of those things? So much better than a broom! Roaring along the street and up into the air!" He gave a little hop, then sighed, clasping his hands to his chest. "I think I'm in love."

"They don't fly, you know," Remus grinned.

"Yeah, but they could," said Sirius dreamily.

When it was clear that the motorbike would not be coming back, Sirius reluctantly allowed the others to continue on their way, but stopped them again outside a shop displaying a black leather jacket in its window.

"I'm going to try it on," he announced, quickly finishing his ice cream and wiping sticky fingers on his trousers before marching inside.

The shop was more upscale than Remus was used to, but he supposed it couldn't hurt to look. At least, he thought so until he saw the red blazer. It hung on a rack at the back of the shop, rich velvet the colour of a fine wine, with absurdly wide lapels. He hesitated a moment before allowing himself to touch the soft fabric. It probably cost more than he should spend, and wouldn't fit him in any case, but he couldn't remember the last time he had owned anything so fine.

I'll just try it on for a minute, he thought. No harm in it.

Remus shrugged into the jacket, twisting and turning in front of the shop's three angled mirrors, debating with himself. Five pounds, the tag said. He had the money -- might never have enough for something so fancy again -- but should he spend it? The garment was a touch too long, and wider across the shoulders than he was, but with luck, that meant he would be able to wear it for a few years at least. Lush colours and velvets were fashionable in both the Wizarding and Muggle worlds, which meant twice as many places he could wear it. Still, he really shouldn't.

Sirius appeared in the mirror behind him, grinning. "What d'you think?" he asked, spinning around to display the enormous leather jacket he wore. The sleeves hung down well past his fingertips.

"You look ridiculous," Remus told him. "Anyway, you haven't got enough for it."

"Would have if they took proper money," Sirius grumbled.

"We should probably go." Remus regretfully took off the blazer and returned it to the rack. The shopkeeper was eyeing them with dislike. Clearly twelve-year-old boys were not among her favourite customers.

"Aren't you getting that?" Sirius asked.

Remus shook his head. "I shouldn't."

"Why not? It suits you. I wish I'd found something that good."

"D'you really think so?" Remus stared at the jacket, conflicted.

Sirius nodded. "You should get it. I could lend you the money."

"No," said Remus, deciding.

He plucked the garment back off the rack and turned towards the till, wondering what effect prolonged acquaintance with Sirius Black was likely to have on his better judgment. But when they stepped out into the street once more and Sirius danced around him, urging him to, "Put it on! Put it on!" Remus could not bring himself to regret the purchase. He swirled the blazer across his shoulders to admiring noises from his friends, enjoying the rich, swishy feel of the fabric.

"Where to next?" he asked the others, feeling about ten feet tall.

Sirius, who had been separated from his precious radio for almost four hours and was clearly feeling the strain, immediately asked, "Where can we buy Muggle music?"

There was a record shop not far from the fountain in the square. Remus and his friends entered it with varying degrees of awe and reverence.

"A store just for music?" Sirius had voiced his disbelief when he saw it. There wasn't enough Wizarding music in the whole world to warrant its own store. The fact that there were thousands of times more Muggles than wizards in the world meant thousands of times more Muggle music, in almost infinite variety.

Remus briefly instructed his friends on the use of the listening booths, reminding them to take care not to scratch or otherwise damage the fragile vinyl discs, then wandered over to a display of new albums. Keeping one eye on his unruly friends, Remus leafed through the recent releases until he found one by an artist he liked, and took it into the second booth. The music had barely started when Sirius slipped in, closing the door behind him.

He stood listening for a moment before asking, "Is this what you like? This kind of music?"

Remus nodded.

Sirius picked up the cardboard square of the album cover and considered it. "Pink Floyd? That's a weird name."

"They're really good," Remus told him. "This is new, though. I haven't heard it before."

"Are you going to buy it?"

Remus shook his head regretfully.

He expected to have to once again brush off an offer from Sirius to lend him the money, but instead his friend said, "Then I will."

"You like it?" Remus asked, surprised.

Sirius shrugged. "It's all right. Anyway, you know more about music than I do."

They listened in silence for a while longer, but Sirius proved too fidgety a companion for Remus to pay proper attention to the music. He left Sirius to it, returning to the display of new records. He tried to ignore the unfriendly glare of the young man behind the till, so like the one the woman in the clothing store had given him, and picked up another album, turning it over.

At least I'll grow out of being what they don't like, he thought glumly. Not that they'd be pleased to find out they've got a werewolf in their shop.

"What's that?" Sirius was peering over his shoulder again, the Pink Floyd album still clutched between his hands. "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars," he read off the cover of the record Remus was holding. He laughed. "What kind of a name is that?"

"A silly one," Remus mumbled, quickly putting it back. He didn't have enough money left for it, even if he had liked the bits of it he'd heard on the radio. It had been such a good day so far. He wasn't prepared to deal with Sirius's mockery.

Remus left the record store empty-handed, tugging on the cuff of his new jacket to remind himself that at least he had made one good purchase that day, and waited outside for his friends to finish their transactions.

"Find anything you liked?" Remus asked James and Peter when they rejoined him.

"It was all really good," said Peter, never one to venture an opinion of his own before hearing what his friends thought.

"I found some fast, dancy stuff by the blokes on that shirt Sirius bought," James told him, grinning and holding up the paper-wrapped square.

"Do you even have a way to play it?" Sirius asked.

"No," admitted James. "But your parents do, and so do Remus's. I'll bring it with me whenever I visit."

They were five minutes early to the fountain, and when Mrs Potter arrived, James and Sirius immediately offered to carry her bundled purchases. She professed herself delighted with their punctuality and thoughtfulness, and took them all out to lunch, followed by the cinema, which was a rare treat for Remus, and yet another new experience for both Peter and Sirius, who had to be reminded repeatedly by the others to be quiet.

"Motorcycles and music and films!" declared Sirius, practically dancing his way out of the cinema. "Muggles are brilliant!"

"Hush, you," Mrs Potter chided fondly as several curious glances were cast in their direction.

Remus grinned. Sirius's joy was irresistible. In fact, it was almost impossible to be near the other boy and not be affected by his moods and opinions. I should be more careful, Remus thought. Control, right? I shouldn't let him sway me. No good could come of allowing his capricious friend so much influence over him.

The coach ride back to Godric's Hollow was marked by laughter and lighthearted chatter, so much so that the driver told them rather irritably to settle down or they'd be walking home. Mrs Potter beamed as James and Sirius took turns recounting the adventures of the day, and made Remus flush almost the same colour as his new blazer when she complimented it.

By the time James's mother unlocked the front door of the old farmhouse, Sirius was describing for the third time, and with undiminished enthusiasm, their encounter with the Muggle on the motorcycle.

"It sounds very exciting," Mrs Potter assured him. "Why don't you boys go and put your things away, and then you can help me make a start on supper."

They pounded up the stairs, Sirius flinging himself through the guest room door ahead of Remus. When he stopped short, Remus almost ran into him.

A sleek, dark grey owl was perched on the windowsill. "That's Athenasius," said Sirius, excitement draining from him visibly. "My parents' owl."

Remus watched as Sirius, moving as if against his will, crossed the room, eyes locked on the bird, and detached the roll of parchment from its leg.

"What do they say?" asked Remus, feeling suddenly uneasy as Sirius's eyes moved over the short message.

His friend's mouth tightened. "They want me to come home. Aunt Druella's parents are having a party on Saturday, and they say I have to go."

"Oh." Remus sat down heavily on the bed, good mood shattered. Not -- he told himself firmly -- because Sirius's mood had been, but because Sirius was going back to that place and those people. The ones who in a matter of days had turned him from one of Remus's best friends into a proud and pitiless stranger. What would Sirius be like after spending the rest of the summer with them?

"You're doing it again," Sirius said irritably. "Stop it."

"Doing what?"

"Going all closed up, like you think I'm going to turn into one of them again. I'm not."

Remus sighed. "No, I get it. I do. They're your family. If you have to act a certain way around them --"

"No." Sirius sat down beside him, forcing Remus to look up into stormy grey eyes. "They're not my only family anymore. I've got James and his parents and you and Peter now, haven't I?"

Hesitantly, Remus nodded, hoping that the doubts he felt didn't show on his face.

During his last two days in Godric's Hollow, Sirius tried to keep himself busy. This might well be his last chance to have fun all summer, and he wasn't going to waste any more time than necessary brooding about going home. He was not uniformly successful; Mrs Potter had to call him out once for snapping at Peter. But aside from that, his days were filled with swimming and flying, both of which he was getting better at, and his evenings with playing games and listening to music with his friends.

Sirius knew he was not fooling anyone with his falsely cheerful attitude. While the Potters were kind and sympathetic, and James and Peter did their best to keep him distracted, Remus had grown even more subdued than usual, and had even begun to lose when they played Odin's Eye.

He thinks I just act however the people I'm around expect me to, Sirius thought moodily. It bothered him that Remus -- one of the cleverest and most thoughtful people he knew -- should think of him that way. Sirius didn't care what his family thought of him. The only people whose opinions mattered were the ones sharing the house in Godric's Hollow with him. But how could he prove that to Remus?

On his last evening in the village, the Potters surprised Sirius and his friends by taking them out for supper at the local pub. Sirius would be leaving later that night, and Remus and Peter were planning to return home the following day. The pub was a dimly-lit and smoky place, but James insisted that the food was almost as good as at Hogwarts. Mr Potter led the way, skirting tables of beer-drinking Muggles until they reached a smaller room at the rear of the pub filled with another sort of patron. Sirius noticed the difference immediately.

"They're all wizards!" he said with delight. "I thought it was just some old pub."

"No, it's some really old pub," James grinned. "Didn't you see the sign over the door?"

"Yeah." He had noticed the sign only because of its resemblance to the Gryffindor House crest, but instead of a rearing golden lion, the red field had displayed an indistinct yellow animal.

"The pub's called the Golden Griffin," his best friend told him. "It's where Godric Gryffindor was born."

"Really?" Sirius stared at his surroundings with wide-eyed interest. He had assumed the village was named for the Hogwarts founder, but had not imagined that the connection between the two reached so far back into the mists of time.

Mr Potter smiled. "Well, he was born at the first Golden Griffin," he informed the boys. "It was just a small inn at a crossroads then, owned by his family. This place has been rebuilt and added onto several times over the centuries. Not much more than the cellar is original anymore, I don't believe."

"No wonder so many wizards live here," said Sirius. He was about to ask if everyone who lived in the village had been in Gryffindor House at Hogwarts, but then he remembered Giles Ogilvie and Davy Gudgeon.

Mr Potter grabbed them a table while Mrs Potter went up to the bar to order the food.

"Make sure you get some of the Cornish pasties, Mum!" James called after her.

The food was excellent, as James had promised, but Sirius had a hard time enjoying it. In less than two hours, he would be back at home with his family, and Hogwarts felt like it was years away. Remus, sitting beside him, was also picking at his food.

"Did you know Gryffindor was born here?" Sirius asked him.

"Hmm? Oh. Yeah. It's in Hogwarts: A History. But he didn't come back here much after he went away to learn magic."

"Where did he go?" asked Peter. "I mean, there was no Hogwarts before he founded it."

Remus shook his head. "Nobody really knows. The stories say that the founders had a teacher who learned magic from Merlin himself, but no one knows who he was."

"Why can't we learn about stuff like that in History of Magic?" sighed Sirius. "Even Binns couldn't make the founders boring, could he?"

Mrs Potter laughed. "You'd be surprised. If he's still doing things the way he did in my day, then the founders are NEWT level history. There were only three of us from my year who continued to that level."

"Speaking of classes," said Mr Potter, "I've heard you're getting a new Defence Against the Dark Arts professor this year."

"Where'd you hear that, Dad?" asked James.

"I only know because it's someone from my department."

Sirius's eyes lit up. "We're getting an Auror to teach us Defence?"

The other three boys were also staring avidly at James's father.

Mr Potter frowned. "Perhaps it's unprofessional of me to say anything against my colleague, but I think it's only fair to warn you boys. Gand is a hell of an Auror, but he's not the friendliest bloke. He has a very low tolerance for foolishness of any kind. I want you boys to promise me you'll be careful not to get on his bad side."

The four boys nodded earnestly. It was clear from Mr Potter's words that he respected their new teacher, but it didn't sound as if he liked him very much. Sirius didn't understand how that could be possible. He was already halfway to liking the unknown man himself, imagining Defence classes filled with exciting new hexes and spells, and thrilling tales of narrow escapes. There was no way an Auror could be as boring a teacher as Professor Tynedale had been.

Sirius was so busy fantasising about the coming year at Hogwarts that he almost forgot he was going home until they returned to the Potters' house.

Remus did not come upstairs with him when he went to collect his things, though James followed, ducking into his own room. Sirius sat on the bed of the guest room, hugging the red and gold afghan to his chest. He was going to miss this place. He would miss having fun and being able to say and do as he liked. He would miss the Potters. But most of all, he would miss his friends.

James appeared in the doorway, the radio in his hands. "You can take this with you," he said. "To help you remember --"

"Not to be a prat. I know," said Sirius glumly. "Thanks."

He stuffed the device into his rucksack on top of his robes, then slung the strap over his shoulder. "Let's get this over with."

The others were waiting for him in the sitting room.

Mr Potter shook his hand. "We'll be seeing you soon, son."

"Wish you could be my real mum and dad," Sirius mumbled as Mrs Potter gave him a long hug.

"It won't be so bad," said Peter. "I'll come over sometime."

Sirius doubted the sentiment, but said, "Thanks, Pete," anyway.

James hugged him, too. "Owl me when your parents are taking you to Diagon Alley. We can all meet up there, yeah?"


"I'm going to miss you, Brother." James's hazel eyes were sincere for once.

A lump formed in Sirius's throat, and he swallowed. "I'll miss you, too."

Last of all, Sirius turned to Remus, hugging him every bit as fiercely as James had hugged him.

"I know what you're thinking," Sirius said, letting go at last, "but it's not going to happen. I promise. I'll write to you every week, and tomorrow night at the party, I'll wear my new shirt under my robes. And I'll have this with me."

He fished the brass-handled knife out of the pocket of his denims. He hadn't been without it since Remus had given it to him.

"If it's more unbearable than I think it's going to be, I can always slit my throat," he joked.

That brought a reluctant smile to Remus's lips. "If I haven't heard from you by next weekend, I guess I'll know what happened."

Chapter Text

Sirius kept his promise. At least once a week, his black owl would arrive on the windowsill of Remus's bedroom, bearing a scroll of parchment, long or short. The weather remained fine for the most part throughout July and August, and most days -- and even most nights -- Remus was able to leave his window open.

Though Sirius spoke mainly of frustration with his constrictive home life -- "It's not Fair. Why does Everyone expect so much of me? I have to wear Stupid clothes all the Time and hang about being polite to People I can't Stand. At least they didn't lock me up in the Cellar the second I got Home." -- still Remus was glad to get his letters, and did his best to keep his friend's spirits up, joking with him and reminding him that they would be back at school before they knew it. The only positive development was that Sirius seemed to be on better terms with his brother.

Peace had returned to the Lupin household, and Remus was enjoying his quiet holiday at home, but the summer still had two disappointments in store for him.

The first was that he was not able to visit Lily as he had hoped. This had nothing to do with his parents' worries about him having a "girlfriend", but was rather due to the fact that his family could no longer afford Floo powder for anything other than emergencies. Yorkshire, where Lily and her family lived, was a long journey by Muggle means, and train tickets were no less costly than Floo powder, even if his parents had been willing to let him venture so far from home alone.

In the absence of his friends, Remus contented himself with letters, and could be found writing to someone almost daily, or reading over a recent letter from one of his friends. James's letters always made him laugh, while Peter's made Remus feel sorry for the lonely boy. Lily was the friend he could talk to about anything; there were no secrets between them. But it was Sirius's letters that never failed to make Remus smile, despite their grouchy tone. His vivid personality shone from the page, highlighted by his habitual use of emphatic capitalisation.

However, it was Sirius's last letter of the summer that brought Remus his second disappointment. It was a longish letter, speaking of this and that, but at the end, Sirius wrote, "Mother and Father are taking me to Diagon Alley on Friday for my School things. James and his Parents are planning to 'Accidentally' bump into us there. It will be really Good to see them again. This Summer has dragged on Forever. Can't wait to be back at School. See you at King's Cross."

Remus sat frowning at the letter for a long time. Hadn't Sirius said in the Potters' sitting room that the four of them would "definitely" meet up in Diagon Alley? But apparently he had changed his mind. Remus wondered if it was because Sirius was reluctant to expose Remus to his family again. Remus couldn't really blame him, but he wished Sirius had just come right out and said it, rather than casually disinviting him. Not that it mattered; that Friday would be the day after the August full moon, and Remus would be in no fit state to go anywhere.

In the event, Remus was glad he did not see anyone he knew when he paid his own visit to Diagon Alley with his father the Monday after the moon. His parents had scraped together enough money for parchment, ink, quills and secondhand school books, but they had been hoping to trade in his robes from the previous year, which had grown rather short in the hems and cuffs.

When they deposited the clean and neatly-folded robes on the counter at Madam Malkin's, however, the proprietor had eyed Remus narrowly. "It's the boy with the 'silver allergy', isn't it?"

Remus's heart sank. He had hoped she wouldn't remember him.

"No, I can't take these," she sniffed, shoving the threadbare robes back into his arms. "What am I to sell them as? Broom-polishing rags?"

"Well, never mind, eh?" Remus's father said with false cheerfulness as they exited the robe shop. "We'll see if your mother can let out the hems a bit. You should be able to get another year's use out of them."

Remus nodded gloomily, wishing he hadn't spent all his money on that stupid blazer. What had he been thinking? Hadn't he been ridiculed enough for the state of his robes the previous year? At least then they had fit him properly.

By the time they visited Flourish and Blotts, and Remus's father had haggled down the price of a set of used school books by a couple of Sickles, Remus was feeling thoroughly dejected. He knew his friends probably wouldn't say anything beyond the occasional teasing comment, and that it didn't really matter what the Slytherins said about him, but it would have been nice not to be an obvious target of ridicule for once.

Remus's mood was a dark cloud hanging over the final three days of his summer holidays. He felt too out of sorts to respond to his friends' last round of letters, and instead spent his time playing games and reading with Natalie, telling himself that he would see his friends on the first of September, and all would be well. Natalie, too, had made friends at her new school, but she missed her brother when he was away from home every bit as much as he missed her.

"I'm glad you're going back, though," she told him on the last day. "I just wish I could go with you."

"Me, too." He tugged one of her blonde plaits. "I promise I'll come home for Christmas, though."

"Show me some magic then?" she asked hopefully.

He shook his head, smiling. "Not allowed to do magic outside school until I'm seventeen, am I?"

"Not fair." She scowled. "One little spell wouldn't hurt, would it?"

"Probably not," he grinned. "But what if I transfigured your nose into a strawberry, and then couldn't change it back?"

She giggled. "Can you really do that?"

"Well, no," he admitted, tweaking her nose. "But just for you, I'll learn."

James stepped through the barrier onto Platform Nine and Three-Quarters and looked around, trying to catch sight of his three best friends. They were nowhere in sight, but he spied Lily Evans, a pretty red-haired girl from their year who was friends with Remus. She was standing with her Slytherin friend, Severus Snape, a boy whom James had grown to dislike over the course of the previous year, due to his habit of hexing people -- namely James's friends -- in the back.

"James!" called a voice from down the platform, and he turned, grinning.

Another red-haired girl was coming towards him, answering James's grin with one of her own. Matilda Hathersage was not quite so pretty as Evans, but much better, in James's personal opinion, was the fact that she liked Quidditch. And she liked him.

"Hey, Hathersage," he greeted her as his parents exchanged a look, hiding their own smiles. "Good summer?"

"Yeah," she said a little breathlessly. "Sorry I never wrote. Mum hardly ever lets me use the owl."

"Are you going to introduce us to your friend, Jamie?" his mother asked.

"Er -- yeah. Sorry, Mum. This is Matilda Hathersage. She's in Gryffindor, too."

His parents solemnly shook hands with the girl as James glanced around once more for his friends.

"I have to go say goodbye to my parents," Matilda told him. "But I just wanted to see if you'd maybe like to meet up sometime?"

"Sure," he grinned. "I'll see you around, yeah?"

She skipped away, giggling.

"She seems like a nice girl," said his father.

"Yeah," said James, still grinning. "She's an ace flier, too."

"Well, try not to get into too much trouble, son," teased his father. "Your mother and I aren't ready to be grandparents yet."

"Dad!" cried James, ears turning red. Were they going to give him The Talk again, right there on the platform?

Fortunately, at that moment James spotted Sirius and his family coming through the barrier, his friend's trunk being hauled along by the Black family house-elf.

"Oi! Sirius!" James called, beckoning him over.

Sirius's scowl instantly transformed into a grin, and he broke away from his parents to dash over. "Hi, Mum. Dad," he said quietly, so that his own mother and father, following at a more dignified pace, wouldn't catch the greeting. Sirius's parents had met James's family the previous week in Diagon Alley, and while they had said nothing overtly rude at the time, the Blacks' disapproval of their eldest son's attachment to James's parents had been clear.

His own parents greeted Sirius fondly before exchanging stiff nods of acknowledgment and empty pleasantries with Mr and Mrs Black. James's mother eyed Sirius's younger brother Regulus, but she said nothing.

"Where are Pete and Remus?" Sirius asked, looking around.

James shrugged. "Haven't seen them yet."

"There he is!" Sirius exclaimed, jumping up and down, waving. "Remus! Remus, over here!"

A smile flashed across Remus's face as he caught sight of Sirius and James waving to him, but he hung back, eyeing Sirius's parents, until his own urged him forwards.

More parental introductions were made, and this time James's mother said nothing to discomfit Mr Lupin. The Blacks reluctantly acknowledged the presence of Remus's parents, but when Remus's younger sister marched up to Regulus, plaits swinging, and introduced herself, both of Sirius's parents pursed their lips in disapproval.

"When will you start at Hogwarts?" Regulus asked the girl stiffly.

"I can't," she informed him. "I'm not magic."

Regulus's mouth twisted into a sneer. "A Muggle," he said, voice dripping disgust.

Mr and Mrs Lupin's mouths tightened, and Sirius scowled at his brother.

"You want to keep your son in order, Black," James's father said lightly. "I'd expect better manners from someone of your standing."

"My son is no concern of yours, Potter," replied Mr Black icily.

"You're not very nice," Natalie informed Regulus. "It's a good thing I know not all wizards are like you. If you're smart, maybe you'll figure out that not all Muggles are the same, either."

Regulus looked startled, and James caught several quickly-suppressed smiles from the rest of the party.

Mr Black, deciding that the best course of action was to ignore those he considered beneath his notice, turned to his eldest son. "Be mindful of what we talked about Sirius. See that you stay out of trouble and keep better company this year." His cold grey eyes narrowed briefly at Remus, who looked down and tugged self-consciously at the cuffs of his too-short sleeves.

"Don't worry, Father," said Sirius. "I'll keep the best company I know how."

Mr Black frowned, but he was not keen to be seen rowing with his son in front of half of Wizarding Britain.

"You'd best be getting on, boys," said James's father. "You don't want to miss the train."

James hugged his parents, and then his mother hugged Sirius, who looked both pleased and embarrassed.

Sirius's father turned away. "Come along, Walburga. Regulus."

Regulus hesitated a moment, looking as if he might like to hug his brother goodbye, too, then turned to follow his father.

"Should Kreacher be putting Master Sirius's trunk onto the train?" the house-elf croaked.

"No," sniffed Mrs Black. "I'm sure he has enough friends here to manage it."

Sirius's cheeks were burning, his eyes scorching holes into the backs of his retreating parents' robes.

"C'mon," said James, elbowing him. "We should go."

Sirius shook himself and turned away with a mirthless laugh. "You can see they haven't changed."

"They're gone now," James heard Remus say in a low voice as they and James's and Remus's families hauled the boys' luggage towards the train. "Forget about them."

Halfway down the platform, they met an out-of-breath Peter. "I've saved us a compartment near the front," he said proudly.

James smiled. "Good show, Pete. Here, give us a hand. You can carry my broom."

Peter's eyes lit up as he shouldered the Nimbus 1000 and led the way to the front of the train, walking a little taller than usual.

The compartment in which Peter had stowed his own trunk was still, astoundingly, empty of other students. James realised why as soon as he entered, and reeled back, gagging.

"Slytherin's pants! It reeks in here!" he gasped, swooning melodramatically into Sirius's arms.

"Yeah," blushed Peter. "Sorry. I thought if I dropped a Stink Pellet, it would keep people out."

"I think I'll go look for Lily," said Remus faintly.

"You don't want to sit with her, mate." Sirius grabbed Remus by the sleeve and hauled him into the smelly compartment. "You know she'll be sitting with Snivellus, and he's fouler than a hundred Stink Pellets."

"I'll open the window," Peter volunteered, moving across the compartment. "It won't be so bad."

The adults stowed the luggage overhead and bade their children a final farewell, breathing through their mouths. Remus's sister hugged him ferociously, then turned to Sirius, hands on her hips.

"You'd better be nice to him," she said. "I can't hex you or anything, but I can probably think of something horrible to do to you if you're not."

Sirius bit his lip, looking as if he was trying not to smile. "I'll do my best," he promised.

"Your sister's pretty fierce, isn't she?" laughed James when the four of them were alone at last.

Remus smiled sheepishly. He was sitting as close to the open window as he could manage. "Yeah. I'm thinking about getting her a Gryffindor scarf for Christmas. Sorry," he added glancing at Sirius.

Sirius shrugged. "It's all right. At least your family looks out for you."

"Yeah, well, we've sort of had to stick together," said Remus, looking uncomfortable, and not just because of the lingering odour.

I'll bet you have, thought James, glancing covertly at Remus while rummaging through the pockets of his robes for his set of Gobstones. He tried and failed to imagine what it must be like to have a werewolf in the family, or worse luck yet, to be one. "Who's up for a game?" he asked.

He ended up playing against Sirius, since Remus was loathe to move away from the window and Peter was busy coddling his pet Puffskein, Constantine, which had developed a pathetic little cough since the dropping of the Stink Pellet. The vibration of the train, however, made the Gobstones unstable, causing them to squirt randomly, rather than just when they knocked into an opposing stone, and they abandoned the game in frustration.

By the time the witch with the food trolley came by, the odour in their compartment had dispersed enough for them to be tempted by the array of available sweets. Remus looked wistfully at the stack of Chocolate Frogs -- a favourite of his -- but shook his head regretfully and turned away, tugging at the cuffs of his robes again. James was about to reach for his own money, when Sirius jumped in ahead of him.

"Chocolate Frogs," he told the witch. "I'll take the lot."

"Collecting cards, are we, dear?" asked the witch indulgently as Sirius counted out some silver.

"Yeah," said Sirius, accepting his change and tossing the pile of boxes carelessly onto one of the seats.

"Since when do you collect Chocolate Frog cards?" James asked.

Sirius shrugged. "Since today."

"You'll be sick if you eat all those," said Peter, looking up from his wilting Puff. "And then you won't want the feast. And the feast is going to be brilliant."

"I thought I'd get you lot to help me with them. Here, Lupin," he said, tossing a few to Remus. "Take three. I know you like them."

James hid a grin at Sirius's less-than-subtle subterfuge. Generosity was not a trait that ran in the Black family, but apparently Sirius had picked it up somewhere. Did we teach him that? he wondered.

"Speaking of help," James said, unwrapping one of his own Chocolate Frogs, "I'm going to need you lads to give me a hand with something this week."

The other three looked up at him curiously, mouths full of chocolate.

"Quidditch," he explained. "If I'm going to make Seeker, I've got to practise, haven't I? Tryouts'll be in a week or so. I want to practise at least an hour a day, starting tomorrow, and I'll need one of you to chuck stuff about for me to catch."

Sirius snickered. "If you're looking for someone to throw things at you, mate, you can always ask the Slytherins. I bet they'd line up for the chance."

"I'll do it," Peter volunteered. Then he blushed. "I don't mean I want to throw things at you. Not like Sirius said. I just meant -- I'll help, yeah?"

James flashed him a grin. "Thanks, Pete. I knew I could count on at least one of my friends for support."

"You know," said Remus, "if you put as much effort into your schoolwork as you do into Quidditch, you'd be top of our year in no time."

James waved a hand in dismissal. "Priorities, Lupin! You think I'd rather be a swot like you and Evans than win the Quidditch cup?" But he tempered the words with a smile so that Remus would know he didn't mean anything by it.

Darkness was falling, and Peter had dozed off with his Puff still in his lap, by the time the train reached Hogsmeade Station. The four of them left their trunks on the platform -- all their possessions would be transported by magic to their proper place in Gryffindor tower -- and fought their way through the crowd of milling students to the long line of horseless carriages that would take all but the new first years up the long drive to the castle.

Peter didn't like the carriages, and muttered something about them being "spooky" as James boosted him into a seat. Remus, too, eyed the carriage warily, but James didn't see what the big deal was. They were far more comfortable than the boats the first year students would be taking across the lake, and there was much less chance of ending up soaked to the skin.

The carriages dropped them at the foot of the stone steps leading up to the huge double doors that were the entrance to the castle. James and his friends made their way up the steps amid the excited babble of their fellow students, through the cavernous, torchlit entrance hall, and into the luminous, star-flecked warmth of Hogwarts' Great Hall.

There, Remus sheered off from the others, and went to sit with Lily Evans. James nudged Sirius and rolled his eyes as their friend shared a long hug of greeting with the red-haired girl. "Girls," muttered Sirius in agreement, wrinkling his nose in disgust.

Not far down the Gryffindor table, James, Sirius and Peter met up with the Prewett twins, Gideon and Fabian, a pair of popular, fun-loving seventh years who had taken their young Housemates under their wing the previous year. The tall, sandy-haired boys greeted them with grins and handshakes all around as the three younger boys took seats next to them.

"Good summer, lads?" asked Gideon.

"Yeah," said James as Peter and Sirius just shrugged. "You?"

"Not bad, not bad," Fabian said. "Spent a lot of it helping out Molly and Arthur. Wee Billy's at that age where he's into everything the moment your back's turned, and Molly needs all the rest she can get."

James nodded. They had learned just before the end of last term that the Prewetts' sister, Molly Weasley, was expecting a second child that winter. Babies didn't really interest James; he cared more about the sorts of adventures Gideon and Fabian had planned for the upcoming year.

"Have you found out anything new to investigate this year?" he asked. The Prewett brothers had a reputation for hunting down gossip and uncovering the secrets of the school and its inhabitants.

Gideon shook his head. "Nothing yet. We've sort of promised Molly we'd stay out of trouble this year, on account of NEWTs, and Fabe here being Head Boy."

"Are you really?" asked Peter, gazing in awed admiration at the golden badge on Fabian's chest.

"We weren't planning on doing as much investigating this year, anyway," Fabian told them. "We think our efforts are better spent on the Advanced Defence Club we started last spring."

Sirius looked as disappointed as James felt. "You're actually going to study?"

"It's not just studying, Black," admonished Gideon. "In less than a year, we're going to be out there, and we need as much practise as we can get."

James could guess what the older boy meant by "out there". The Prewetts were always going on about the war that was brewing in the Wizarding world. The subject didn't interest James much, except insofar as it meant long hours at work for his father and extra worry for his mother. James himself considered it to be a lot of boring politics. A few people had been killed, and that was dreadful, but there had been no real fighting yet, and so far as James was concerned, a war without fighting was a dull affair. The Prewetts, however, were planning to enter Auror training once they left Hogwarts, and if there ever was any fighting, they would be in the thick of it, so James understood why they wanted to be prepared.

He looked up at the high table, where the Hogwarts staff sat, remembering what his father had told him, scanning for new faces.

"That must be him," he muttered, elbowing Sirius and nodding to a man seated at the headmaster's right hand.

"Him who?" asked Fabian, craning past them for a better look at the stranger.

"The new Defence teacher," James told the twins, pleased for once to know something they did not. "Dad says he's an Auror." The Prewetts goggled at the man.

"Is that --?" breathed Fabian.

"It can't be!" Gideon said, shaking his head.

"I thought he was dead!" said Fabian.

"Who?" James looked back and forth between the twins, confused.

They turned towards him, eyes like saucers, and said in tones of awe, "Helsing Gandolfsson."

James did not have a chance to inquire further, for at that moment, the doors to the Great Hall opened, and the new first year students filed in, led by Professor McGonagall, who carried a three-legged stool and the ancient school Sorting Hat. The first years were tiny, terrified, and utterly uninteresting to James. He ignored the Hat's song, and clapped automatically when it shouted "GRYFFINDOR!", sending another new student scurrying their way. All his attention was fixed on the new Defence Against the Dark Arts master.

Gandolfsson -- assuming the Prewetts were correct about the man's identity -- paid as little notice to the Sorting as James himself did. He sat with his thin shoulders hunched, mouth pinched, sharp eyes darting this way and that around the hall, taking in everything at once. James had expected someone both older and more intimidating, based on his father's few words of caution and respect over the summer, but Gandolfsson was a small man, probably little taller than James himself, and though his wild shock of hair was white as snow, he did not appear to be much past forty. When he raised his goblet to his lips, James gasped, drawing Peter and Sirius's attention. The last two fingers of Gandolfsson's right hand were missing.

"Blimy," breathed Peter. "He looks like he's been in the wars, doesn't he?"

James just nodded.

All throughout the meal, during which the Prewetts gushed and babbled their excitement at the prospect of learning Defence from an Auror of Gandolfsson's reputation, James's eyes kept straying back to the staff table. Once, he caught the new professor looking at him, and turned away so quickly that he got a crick in his neck. He was still massaging it when Headmaster Dumbledore rose to give the start of term announcements.

"Welcome, one and all, to another year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. We are so very pleased to have you back with us once again. It is my hope, and the hope of my esteemed colleagues, that this year will be filled with study, learning, and growth of character, as well as the usual friendships, adventures, and of course the things that you all think we don't know you get up to when our backs are turned." He beamed benevolently around the room, waiting for the laughter to die away.

"Be that as it may, it is my duty to inform first year students -- and to remind our returning classes -- that the forest in the grounds is off limits without the permission and accompaniment of a member of staff. You will also do well to remember that the use of magic by students in the halls and grounds between classes is strictly forbidden, and that your professors have a number of creative punishments at their disposal for those who choose to ignore the rules.

"We have two new members of staff joining us this year, and it is my wish that you will offer them both your utmost attention and respect." Dumbledore gestured to the wizard on his right. "I am pleased to introduce our new Defence Against the Dark Arts master, Professor Helsing Gandolfsson. Professor Gandolfsson is a highly respected member of the Aurors Office, and we are honoured to have him among us."

Gandolfsson nodded curtly in response to the polite smattering of applause, but did not rise, nor speak any word of greeting.

"Also joining us this year," Dumbledore continued, inclining his head courteously to the far end of the staff table, "is Professor Pomona Sprout, who will be taking over Herbology from Professor Beery, who tendered his retirement over the summer."

Professor Sprout was a plump, cheerful looking young witch with dimples and flyaway red hair. She waved cheerily at the students, raising her goblet in a silent toast.

"She looks nice, at least," said Peter, his ears and the tip of his nose turning pink.

Sirius laughed and nudged James. "Sounds like you've got some competition for the school redheads, mate."

James rolled his eyes, grinning. "Pete can have her. The girls our age are enough for me. I just hope she's less boring than old Beery was."

The long trudge up to Gryffindor tower following the start of term banquet was enough to wear a person out, Sirius reflected, opening his trunk and rummaging through it for his pyjamas.

Across the room, Remus was already stowing his books in the cabinet of his nightstand and hanging his robes on the brass hooks in the wardrobe they shared. They were the same robes Remus had worn last year. Sirius had recognised the patch on the elbow of one of them, and had noticed the way Remus kept tugging at the cuffs on the train, which rode up, exposing a scar across the back of his wrist.

I'll put my things away tomorrow, thought Sirius, yawning. Or maybe never.

He dragged out the huge red and gold afghan Mrs Potter had given him and bundled it onto the bed. It had been the last thing to go into his trunk when he had packed. Sirius had slept every night that summer wrapped up in its warmth, and even after six weeks at his own house, he still fancied he could smell Mrs Potter's baking in the folds of it. It had been his comfort on lonely nights, and had brightened his colourless room like a ray of sunshine.

Changing into his pyjamas, he climbed up onto the bed and burrowed under the knitted blanket, lazily watching his roommates get ready for bed.

"Did you see how tiny the first years are?" he asked. "Smaller'n Pete, some of 'em."

"Oi!" said Peter indignantly, pausing in the midst of buttoning his pyjama top. "I'll have you know I grew four inches last year!"

"Out doesn't count, mate," Sirius laughed.

Remus shot him a quelling look, then turned to Peter, who was sulking. "You'll probably grow a foot this year and be taller than all of us," he said kindly.

Sirius was ashamed of himself, but didn't know how to apologise to Peter. He hadn't meant it, after all, and his friends should know that, shouldn't they? Instead, he returned to the subject of the Sorting.

"It didn't look like we got many good ones this year."

James shrugged, flopping onto his own bed. "I didn't really notice. You lot didn't look very promising last year, and you turned out all right."

Sirius snorted, remembering his own Sorting. "I still don't know how I ended up here."

"The Hat knows," said James. "It doesn't matter what you think. So what if you thought you'd be a Slytherin?"

"Easy for you to say, mate. You never thought you'd be anywhere else, did you?"

"Suppose not." James reclined drowsily back against his pillows. "What about you two?"

Peter looked up from his Puffskein, who he was feeding cake crumbs saved from supper. "I guess I thought Slytherin, 'cos I knew the most people there, but I didn't really care. Just happy to be coming to Hogwarts, wasn't I?"

"Fair enough," said James. "Remus?"

Remus shrugged. "Like Pete said. It didn't really matter to me."

James laughed. "I'd've thought Ravenclaw for sure!"

"Maybe," said Remus, closing his trunk. "But I'm glad I ended up here."

Sirius was glad, too. Glad that he was in Gryffindor, and that James was, and that Remus was, and probably that Peter was, too. They were a good bunch. James is right. The Hat knows.

He had been thinking about his brother during the Sorting. Regulus would be starting at Hogwarts next year, though the two of them were not quite a year and a half apart in age. They had talked a few things over during the summer holidays, forging a fragile peace. But now Sirius was at school, and Regulus was alone with their parents again, with their opinions and their expectations.

Although Sirius was sleepy and the rest of the dormitory was filled with darkness and the beginnings of snores, he lit his wand and put his feet out of bed, padding around to his trunk again to rummage for parchment, quill and ink. Back in bed, he pulled the afghan up almost over his head, uncapped the ink, and wrote, Dear Regs ....

Chapter Text

The second year Gryffindors had their first Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson with Professor Gandolfsson on the following Tuesday after breakfast. Sirius's excitement at the prospect of learning Defence from a real Auror was only slightly dampened by the fact that the class would be a double lesson with Slytherin.

"It was incredible," said Gideon on Monday night at supper.

"Amazing," agreed his brother, shaking his head. "Like no Defence class we've ever had."

"Gandolfsson really knows his stuff," Gideon told them. "He's been there, you know? You'll definitely learn a thing or two if you're even half awake."

Sirius didn't think "awake" was going to be a problem. This wasn't History of Magic, after all. He had never felt so alert and ready to learn. He kept catching James's eye over breakfast, the two of them exchanging broad grins as they stuffed their mouths with eggs and toast and sausage. Peter looked excited, too, but nervous. Remus just sat quietly eating his breakfast, as if they weren't about to have the best lesson of their educations so far.

All the way to class, Sirius imagined being called upon to demonstrate his skill before his fellow students. He would show Professor Gandolfsson some clever jinx he had learnt to impress the Prewetts last year, and the Defence master would praise him as an example of what the whole class should aim to achieve. He had yet to decide between the Noodle-Arms jinx and the Mouth-Sealing hex when they arrived at the Defence classroom.

Remus went to sit at the front with Lily Evans, and after a moment's indecision, Sirius turned away from the usual place he, James and Peter occupied at the back of the classroom, in favour of seats in the second row. James raised his eyebrows, but shrugged and joined him.

Gandolfsson, seated behind his desk, did not look up from the parchment on which he was writing as the students filed in. When the bell rang, signalling the start of the lesson, Sirius was sitting expectantly, parchment, quill and ink at the ready, his copy of Practical Defensive Magic close at hand. He expected the professor to rise and address the class, but instead, Gandolfsson executed an odd sideways slide from behind the desk to the front of the room.

Sirius's mouth dropped open. The Defence master was seated on a miniature flying carpet. His twisted legs hung uselessly over the side, feet cradled in leather stirrups. He eyed the class belligerently, as if gauging their reaction to his incapacity. There was a long silence, during which Sirius regained control of his mouth and snapped it shut, nudging Peter to do the same. James briefly caught his eye and shook his head once. He hadn't known either.

"Right," said Gandolfsson at last. He had a sharp, ringing voice, and his tone was chilly. "I am here for one reason, and one reason only. Which of you unlikely lumps can tell me what that is?"

A few hands rose hesitantly into the air, as if their owners were unsure whether they wanted to draw the attention of those piercing blue eyes.

Gandolfsson nodded to a blond Slytherin boy. "Well?"

"Er -- to teach us Defence, Sir?"

"Name?" the Defence master demanded. He leaned forwards, and the carpet upon which he sat shot through the air, coming to a halt nose-to-nose with the boy.

"L-Lockhart, Sir," stammered the Slytherin, drawing back as far as he was able.

"Well, Lockhart, that's not an entirely stupid answer," said Gandolfsson, turning away and swishing back to the front of the room to address the whole class once more. "The correct answer is that I am here because Dumbledore asked me. I might also ask you why the headmaster requested me, and why I agreed to so dubious an honour, but I don't expect any of you to have deduced those reasons any more than Lockhart has, so I will explain them to you. And I'll be sure to use small words."

Sirius bristled at the Defence master's disdainful tone. James, seated to his left, frowned.

Gandolfsson fixed the class with an icy blue glare that seemed to touch each face in turn. "War is coming," he said. "I know it. You know it. There is a great need right now for men of my profession. So what am I doing here? Why am I wasting my valuable time on empty-headed schoolchildren when I should be at the Ministry, formulating a plan of action with Minister Borage?"

No hands went up this time.

"I am here," he continued, "to discover whether any of you have what it takes to become Aurors. Our men will be dropping like flies before long, and when that happens, we'll need replacements. However temporary." His words rebounded off the stone walls of the classroom like solid objects -- facts that even children of their age should know without telling. "Failing that, Dumbledore wishes me to see to it that as many of you as possible acquire the skills you will need to survive this war when it comes."

The entire class, Gryffindors and Slytherins alike, were mesmerised, eyes fixed on Gandolfsson as if he were the deadly fate stalking them from the shadows. Sirius heard Peter swallow heavily. At least, he thought it was Peter. Surely Sirius himself had not made that nervous sound.

"Look around you. Look at your classmates and your friends," Gandolfsson said. "How many of them will live to see old age? How many will live to see the end of this war? What will you be doing ten years from now? If you want the answer to include breathing, then I suggest you pay close attention in this class. I guarantee you that, under my instruction, your odds of survival will only improve."

Sirius sat up a little straighter, rolling his quill between his fingers. It all sounded terribly important, and yet Gandolfsson had not said anything yet that Sirius could put in his notes. He shot a glance at Remus's parchment. It was reassuringly blank. Remus himself sat forwards, eyes fixed intently on the Defence master, as if memorising every word.

"So now you know why I am here," Gandolfsson said. "'Why?' is one of the most important questions you must learn to answer if you are to have any hope of defending yourselves. Understanding an enemy's motivations -- knowing what he'll do before he does it -- is the key to defeating him. Observe. Anticipate. Outwit. Your best defence is not your wands. It is not magic. It is your minds. Or perhaps not your minds. I don't imagine there's much of that to go 'round in this classroom."

Nettled by the professor's doubts about his intelligence, Sirius dipped his quill into the inkwell, feeling that he should have written something by now, if he wished to appear capable. Observe, Anticipate, Outwit, he scrawled. The Mind is the best Defence. He had a feeling that this was a theme Gandolfsson would drill into them over the course of the coming year, but it was better than nothing.

"Quite frankly, I consider teaching children of your age a waste of my time. I don't expect anyone below their OWL year to display anything like talent," Gandolfsson continued, waving his maimed hand dismissively. "However, there may be exceptions."

Reaching into the pocket of his robes, Gandolfsson drew out a small roll of parchment and opened it.

"I have here a note from your previous Defence mistress informing me that three students from this class had some success in resisting the Imperius Curse. Mr Snape, Mr Lupin and Mr Evans may show some promise in this field."

In the front row, Lily Evans' hand shot into the air. "It's Miss Evans, if you please, Sir."

Gandolfsson favoured the girl with a cold look. "Strong-willed females have been known to put up a kind of resistance from time to time," he said at last, turning away from Evans disinterestedly to address the rest of the class. "I may be required to teach all seven years, boys and girls alike, but in my experience, Defence is a man's subject. Since the Office was founded, there have been only a handful of women who attained the rank of Auror. I doubt there is a single female at this school who has what it takes. Women do well enough with home-warding charms and other kinds of mother-magic, but they lack the will for casting real hexes. My advice to you ladies is to find a man to defend you if you don't wish to end up pretty corpses."

Sirius saw the redhead's shoulders stiffen and her chin tilt up at this pronouncement. That'll show her. Swotty bint. He chuckled, glancing over to where the other Gryffindor girls sat, looking indignant. Gandolfsson clearly had the right idea.

There was a whoosh and Sirius jerked back, Gandolfsson's face inches from his own, summoned by his laugh. In spite of his small stature and twisted limbs, Gandolfsson was rather intimidating.

"Name?" he demanded.

Sirius hastily composed his features into a well-practised expression of indifference. "Black, Sir."

"Think you're better than the girls, do you, Mr Black?"

Sirius blushed, eyes flicking to Remus, who had turned around in his seat and was staring at him along with the rest of the class. "No, Sir," he said quickly.

The Defence master snorted, cold eyes boring into Sirius. "You're not wrong there, boy. I know your family. You slide by on blood and money, and looking at you, probably your pretty face as well. I never met a Black who had enough brains to fill a thimble. Stand up."

Sirius stood, face flaming. If he clenched his jaw any harder, his teeth might crack.

"You're going to go sit with the girls," Gandolfsson told him. There was a curve to his thin lips that might almost have been smile.

Sirius balked. "I'd rather not, Sir," he said stiffly.

"I don't recall asking your preference in the matter, Miss Black."

That got a few giggles. One of them sounded like James. There was going to be some knocking of heads later, Sirius decided.

"I'm not a girl," he said loudly. "I can do this. Sir."

"Fine." Gandolfsson turned away, apparently losing interest. "Sit down, then. Don't interrupt my class again."

Sirius sat, eyes fixed on the few words he had scrawled on his parchment, reading them back over and over again until the professor began to speak once more, waiting for the eyes of his classmates to stop burning holes in his robes.

"Some wizards set great store by blood-purity," Gandolfsson said. "Not me. Your family names will get you no favours in this classroom. The Wizarding world may bow and scrape to the ornamental heirs of overbred lineages, but the reality is that they are most often weak, delicate creatures, and less than useless, because they like to make a fuss and draw attention to themselves like Mr Black here."

Out of the corner of his eye, Sirius saw James's hand shoot up.

Gandolfsson looked displeased at the interruption. "What is it, boy?"

"Do you mean to say that pure-bloods can't be good Aurors, Sir?" asked James.

Sirius let out the breath he had been holding and felt the rage and humiliation coiled in his belly dissipate a little as the class's attention switched from himself to his friend. He decided not to knock James on the head, after all. Perhaps he would only hit him with a pillow.

Gandolfsson scooted in to observe James at close range. James returned his look calmly, and did not budge.

"No need to ask your name," the Defence master said at last. "You'll be the Potter boy. I know your father, of course. An excellent Auror -- for a pure-blood. Hex me, boy."

"W-what?" stammered James, mouth falling open.

"Stand up and hex me, if you think you can."

James stood, fumbling his wand on the draw. "Expelli-"

"Protego," said Gandolfsson impatiently. "Were you not listening, boy? Did I ask you to disarm me?"

"No, Sir."

"You are not your father, boy, and you never will be," Gandolfsson informed him dismissively, turning away once more. "Have we any Muggleborns in this class?"

The only hand to go up this time belonged to Evans.

Gandolfsson's eyes barely grazed her. "Muggleborns are almost as useless as pure-bloods, though a few can be taught. They come from no background. They don't know what the dangers are. They do not have the necessary instincts to react properly. Half-bloods are the only ones who really know the score. They alone truly understand the hatred and contempt in which so much of our world holds them. The best Aurors are always of mixed parentage."

Another hand went up at the back of the classroom.

"Name?" Gandolfsson demanded of the big, dark-haired boy.

"Lestrange, Sir. Are you a half-blood, then?"

The Defence master gave a sharp bark of laughter. "Good question, Lestrange. Shows you're thinking. The answer, of course, is that it's none of your business. One should never share personal information if one can help it," he informed the class. "Sometimes it is necessary, but it is always best to know first why the information is needed."

Gandolfsson began moving about the classroom then, confronting each student in turn. Or rather, confronting the boys; the girls, he largely ignored. One by one, he assessed them all, and one by one, found them wanting in some way.

Peter became flustered and dropped his wand when the professor ordered him to stand, and could not even answer when asked for his name. Gandolfsson, looking disgusted, sent him to sit with the girls, and Peter, the spineless git, did so, appearing relieved to be overlooked thereafter.

When Gandolfsson stopped in front of Remus, Sirius sat up a little straighter, bunching his hands in his robes. If the old troll was going to be nasty to Remus --


"Lupin, Sir." Remus's face was carefully blank.

Gandolfsson looked the pale boy up and down. "You threw off the Imperius Curse?"

"Yes, Sir," said Remus.

"You don't look like much. But then again, neither do I." Gandolfsson gave another cold, barking laugh. "Looks can be deceiving, eh, boy? What's your blood status?"

Sirius saw his friend's shoulders stiffen ever so slightly. "Sir?"

"It's not a difficult question, Lupin," said Gandolfsson impatiently. "Are you a half-blood or not?"

"I don't believe it matters, Sir."

Incredibly, the Defence master smiled. "Good. Very good, Lupin. So there's at least one mind in this class that can be taught. Stand up."

Remus stood. Out of the corner of his eye, Sirius saw Snape's eyes narrow in dislike.

"Where's your wand, boy?" Gandolfsson demanded, smile gone as quickly as it had appeared.

Without speaking, Remus drew his wand from the pocket of his robes, and held it at the ready.

"You can't let your guard down just because you feel secure," Gandolfsson informed the class. "Those Muggles last Easter felt secure, didn't they? Safe in their homes with their families, they were."

A stifled sound came from the cluster of Gryffindor girls, and Sirius saw Dorcas Meadowes' hands clench convulsively on the edge of her desk. She had lost her mother in the Easter Murders the previous spring. With no more than a glance of dislike at their professor, Evans moved to a vacant seat beside the distressed girl, and put an arm around her.

Gandolfsson either did not know or did not care that the tragedy he invoked so casually had touched their class, for he continued speaking as if nothing had happened. "Safety is an illusion. Comfort and routine lulls us into a false sense of security, leaving us unprepared when tragedy strikes. Genuadebilis."

Distracted by the small drama taking place among the girls, Sirius did not realise what had happened until Remus hit the floor. He half-rose from his seat, but James jerked him back, shaking his head. Snape was smirking.

"Get up, boy," said Gandolfsson, looking dispassionately down at the sprawled figure on the floor.

Slowly, face still a mask of indifference, Remus pulled himself to his feet, leaning heavily on the desk and dropping back into his seat when his knees would not support him.

"You see where you went wrong?" the Defence master asked. "You let yourself be distracted and lulled by my words. You assumed that, so long as I was speaking about something else, I would not attack. Perhaps you didn't think I would attack at all. If I had been an enemy, your parents would be getting some unfortunate news today. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, Sir," said Remus. He met Gandolfsson's eyes steadily, his wand still clenched in his fist.

Gandolfsson gave him a long look, then nodded. "Good boy."

He turned at last to the black-haired, hook-nosed Slytherin on the other side of Evans' vacated seat. "And you must be Mr Snape."

Snape's wand was already in his hand. "Yes, Sir."

"Stand up."

Snape did so. Without warning, he whipped his wand around. "Lingua Nodus."

Gandolfsson got his own wand up just in time. "Protego."

A shocked silence gripped the classroom. Evans had both hands over her mouth, eyes gone wide. Sirius wondered if he was about to see Snape reduced to a grease spot. The thought cheered him.

Teacher and student stared at one another, wands pointed. And Gandolfsson smiled.

"Two minds in this class, then," he said. "Well, well. I shall be keeping an eye on you, Mr Snape."

Better that than turn your back on him, Sirius wanted to whisper to James, but he had no desire to draw Gandolfsson's attention.

"It is my hope," said Gandolfsson, addressing the whole class once more, "that by the end of this school year, every student -- even the most hopeless and incompetent first year -- will be able to recognise when an attack is coming, even if he cannot prevent it. It may seem a pitiful enough goal, and of course I expect better progress from the likes of Lupin and Snape, but in the main, I do not think we can hope for much more than that."

Gandolfsson fixed them all with gimlet eye. "Perhaps you think I've been unfair. Perhaps you believe I've misjudged you. I don't want to hear about it. Each one of you has exactly the same chance in my classroom: the chance to prove me wrong."

None of them spoke until they had put a good fifty paces between themselves and the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom at the end of the lesson. And then James whistled, long and low.

"Cor," he said, shaking his head. "What an old horror!"

Sirius looked swiftly over his shoulder before agreeing. "I can't believe he called me 'pretty'. And the way he put Remus on the floor --"

"And he made me sit with the girls," Peter piped up, though he did not appear to be as outraged as Sirius had been by the insult.

"What was it your dad said?" Remus asked James, the shadow of a smile playing on his lips. "That he's not the friendliest bloke? Still, he didn't have to be so nasty to the girls."

"I'm writing to Dad tonight," declared James. "I can't believe that's all the warning he gave us!"

"I miss Tynedale," said Peter. "She wasn't scary."

"Boring, though," Sirius reminded him. "At least Gandolfsson's not that."

Peter sighed. "No. Definitely not boring. But if he doesn't think you two are up to much, I might as well fail my exams now and get it over with."

Remus gave Peter a comforting pat on the shoulder. "Don't count your owls before they hatch, Pete. I bet we'll learn loads from him this year."

Peter looked grateful, but not quite convinced. "D'you reckon he's right? About the war?"

"Nah," said Sirius. "He's just playing it up because he thinks it'll make us work harder. I bet you anything that, if there is a war, it will be over long before we finish school. I mean, all the Aurors need to do is find that Voldemort bloke and chuck him in Azkaban, right? He's just one wizard."

"Ergh," shuddered Peter. "I get chills just hearing his name."

James laughed. "Don't be such a big girl's blouse, Pete. Sirius is right; the Aurors will sort him out. We've got more important things to think about."

"Yeah," agreed Sirius. "Like finding a way to show Gandolfsson we're not completely useless."

"Actually, I was thinking about Quidditch," said James. "We've got half an hour before lunch, and if you lot don't mind, I'm feeling the need to fly."

Sirius laughed, and the four of them went to fetch James's broom. But the desire to prove Gandolfsson wrong had been planted in Sirius's mind. So what if he was a Black and a pure-blood? He had already proven there was more to him than that. Wasn't he a Gryffindor, and friends with a werewolf? He could do this, too.

Chapter Text

By the first weekend of term, James was completely over his excitement at being taught Defence by an Auror. Of course, having an Auror for a father, he had not been quite as eager about the prospect as Sirius had been, nor as nervous as Peter, but he had been looking forwards to Gandolfsson's classes with keen interest. After Tuesday's double lesson with Slytherin, and an hour with the Gryffindors alone on Thursday, however, the shine had worn off.

Gandolfsson was every bit as no-nonsense as James's father had warned them he would be. He was nearly impossible to please, had a low opinion of the intelligence and abilities of every one of his students -- with the occasional exceptions of Remus and Snape -- was rude, abrasive, and had yet to award a single House point to anyone.

It had amused James at first, watching Sirius out of the corner of his eye as his friend squirmed and turned bright red with rage and bit his tongue to avoid bringing the Defence master's baleful glare to bear on him, but by Friday night, as he examined a large bruise on his hip, earned when an unexpected hex had knocked him from his seat and sent him sprawling onto the floor, James had decided that the only good thing to be said for Defence class was that at least it wasn't boring.

Herbology was also less boring than it had been the previous year. Professor Beery, the old Herbology master, had been a kindly man, on friendly terms with most of the students, but his dry teaching style had been little better than that of ghostly Professor Binns, who taught History of Magic. Young Professor Sprout, on the other hand, had grabbed their attention in the very first lesson by introducing them to the rather dangerously-named Devil's Snare.

When the plant assigned to them had grabbed Sirius around the middle and refused to let go, his best friend had sworn loudly, then clapped a hand over his mouth, shooting a wary look at the new Herbology mistress. James had expected her to take House points at the very least, or maybe assign Sirius an evening's detention, but she had surprised them both by giggling as she hurried over to release the struggling boy from the plant's clutches.

"Yes, I expect we'll be hearing rather a lot of that sort of language in this class, Mr Black, magical plants being what they are," she laughed. "Don't worry; there's nothing you can say that I haven't heard plenty of times before."

"She's sort of brilliant, isn't she?" Peter had ventured as the four of them left the greenhouses.

James had laughed. "A bit old for you, mate, don't you think?"

Peter had gone pink, but grinned. "A man can dream."

James wasn't prepared to give him too hard a time for fancying their new professor, since Peter had been so eager to help him practise for his Quidditch tryout. Every afternoon for the past week, for at least an hour between their last class and supper, the two of them had taken James's Nimbus 1000 and a pocketful of Muggle golf balls down to the castle grounds, Peter throwing, and James zooming after to catch. If the weather was fine, Sirius and Remus would accompany them, though Sirius grew bored and restive when he wasn't allowed a turn on the broom, and Remus always brought homework with him, claiming not to have a good throwing arm.

James privately thought Remus couldn't be any worse than Peter, whose throws traveled neither as fast nor as far as a proper Snitch, but he was loathe to say anything, since Peter never seemed to tire of the exercise, and didn't mind running after the throws James missed. He told himself that it didn't really matter, since a real Snitch didn't fly in a straight line, either. Practise would only help so much.

Breakfast on Saturday morning found James tossing a scone into the air and catching it repeatedly, trying to ignore the butterflies fluttering in his stomach. In an hour, he would be down on the pitch. And with any kind of luck, another hour after that, he would be a member of the Gryffindor Quidditch team.

Seeker. It sounded good. His mother had played Seeker for Gryffindor during her own schooldays. It was only right that James should follow in her footsteps. Perhaps he should ask his parents for a new broom for Christmas. His Nimbus was brilliant, but it was a few years old now, and there were better models on the market. So engrossed was he in his thoughts that it took him a moment to realise that the scone had not returned from its last flight.

Glancing up in confusion, he found Matilda Hathersage standing at his shoulder, grinning, the errant scone in her outstretched hand.

"Morning, Hathersage," he said, answering her grin with one of his own as he reclaimed the pastry. "Come to wish me luck?"

"What else?" She wedged herself onto the bench between him and a disgruntled Sirius, who had so far managed to pry only one eye open, and was shovelling eggs into his mouth automatically.

James scooted down a few inches to give her more room. "Are you coming to watch the tryouts?"

"Oh, I'll be there." Her blue eyes sparkled. "I've been watching you fly, James. You're pretty good."

He preened. "Yeah. I did a lot of flying over the holidays."

"Would you mind if I kiss you?" she asked. "For luck, I mean."

The corners of his mouth stretched even wider. "I wouldn't mind."

He held his breath as she leaned in close and pressed her lips against his cheek with a soft smacking sound. "Good luck, James."

She rose and hurried away, giggling. Halfway down the table, she turned to call back over her shoulder, "You're gonna need it!"

His brows drew together, and he turned to see his three friends goggling at him. He raised a hand to touch his cheek. "What d'you suppose she meant by that?"

Remus looked after the departing girl. "I think it means you've got some competition," he said, before turning back to his breakfast.

The Quidditch trials were set for ten o'clock, so the four of them hurried back up to Gryffindor tower straight after breakfast to fetch James's broom. He was hailed in the common room by the Prewett twins, who wished him the best of luck, and promised to actually come out for the matches this year if he made the team. Since it was usually their habit to take advantage of the empty castle on match days for their investigations and explorations, James took it as a mark of particular favour.

Waving the twins a cheery farewell, they exited the portrait hole, and headed down through the castle and grounds to the Quidditch pitch beside the lake. There, the other three wished him well and went to find a place in the stands.

As he entered the stadium, James realised that Remus had been right; he had rather a lot of competition. Over a dozen hopefuls had turned out to fill the vacant Seeker position, and while Gertrude Brown, the short black girl who was Captain of the Gryffindor team, claimed that she was keeping an eye out for potential new talent for all positions, James would have been surprised if she had broken up the previous year's team. They had all been decent, and had worked well together, apart from Bilius Weasley, whose nervous disposition had made him the worst Seeker James had ever seen.

When Brown asked them to mount their brooms in groups of four so that she could see how well they flew, James looked upon the progress of his fellows with pity, privately feeling that many of them would be little improvement over Weasley. His only real competition was Nicholas Beke, a third year whose build was better suited to the position of Beater, and -- Matilda Hathersage.

James blinked. Hadn't she just wished him luck? Hadn't she kissed him and told him he flew really well not an hour before? What in Merlin's name was she playing at?

"All right," Brown bawled at the milling Gryffindors. "Good effort. Everyone can go except Hathersage, Potter and Beke. I want to see how you three do with a real live Snitch."

The other contenders moved off towards the stands with greater or lesser displays of good grace. James was pleased to still be in the running, but he couldn't help feeling betrayed, and did not return the conspiratorial grin the red-haired girl flashed in his direction.

Beke went first. James had been right; he didn't have the agility necessary for the position. His bulk and the mid-range quality of his broom made it difficult for him to get up to speed and change direction quickly, and even when he spotted the Snitch at last, he could not seem to get to where it was before it zoomed off to another part of the stadium.

"Potter," barked Brown, when Beke returned to the ground, looking defeated.

Mouth set in a grim line, James mounted his broom and kicked off, swooping and dodging between the goal posts. He knew very well that his flying was miles better than Beke's, and he wanted to make sure that Brown and anyone else watching knew it, too. He was James Potter. Quidditch was in his blood. No girl was going to steal his place on the team.

He shot up into the air, performing a complicated roll that had elicited a gasp from Peter the first time he had executed it correctly, then dove to skim along bare inches above the ground. It was several moments before he caught sight of the Snitch, hovering near the far goal posts, but once he had seen it, it was less than a minute's exhilarating chase before he held the tiny golden ball triumphantly in his fist.

Returning to the ground, James presented the Snitch to Brown with a flourish.

"Nice work, Potter." She nodded approvingly. "Hathersage, let's see what you can do."

Showoff, thought James grumpily as Matilda Hathersage closed her eyes and counted to ten while Gertrude Brown released the little winged ball into the air. Blinking in the sunlight, she mounted her broom and rose up high above the pitch. She didn't try any fancy broomwork, though James had seen her fly the previous year, and knew her to have some talent, loathe though he was to admit it just now. Instead, she hovered at about the level of the goal hoops, turning slowly, eyes darting about for the elusive flash of gold. James caught himself holding his breath, waiting for her to make her move, and released it in an annoyed huff.

When she moved, he could have blinked and missed it. All of a sudden, she was streaking towards the right-hand goal hoop, a look of fierce determination on her face. Her arm shot out, and her fingers closed around the darting Snitch.

Brown was positively beaming. "Very good!" she declared as Hathersage touched down. "Sharp eyes, patience, excellent reflexes. Your sister was absolutely right. Welcome to the team." The two smiling girls shook hands.

"So that's it, is it?" James scowled.

"Afraid so, Potter," Brown told him regretfully. "You flew really well, though. I'll keep you in mind if we come up short for any matches. You should definitely try out again next year."

"Fine." James shouldered his broom and turned away without another word, heading towards the exit where three figures stood waiting for him.

"James!" called a voice from behind him. "Hey, James!"

He whirled around, and Matilda Hathersage, running after him, was brought up short by the look on his face.

"What?" he barked.

"I -- just wanted to say you did really great today," she said a little uncertainly. "I'd still like to meet up sometime, if you don't mind."

"I don't think so, Hathersage," he told her gruffly, turning his back on her. "You're going to be awfully busy with Quidditch practise from now on, aren't you? Better stick to. I want to see Gryffindor's name on the cup this year."

"What was that all about?" asked Sirius when James reached his waiting friends.

James glanced back across the pitch to see the red-haired girl still standing where he had left her, shoulders slumped. "She got Seeker," he said shortly.

"You'd think she'd be happier about it," observed Peter.

"Yeah," said James irritably. "You'd think so, wouldn't you? C'mon. Let's see if we can get lunch yet. I'm starved."

"D'you think he's awake?"

"Probably. All that banging around you and Pete were doing earlier."

"How long d'you think it'll take him to notice?"

Remus tried to ignore the loud whispers coming from just beyond the borders of his bed. It was Sunday. He shouldn't have to be awake just yet. Turning over, he tried to burrow deeper into his pillow, which thwarted him by being flat and sort of -- papery?

"Ugh?" He pried an eye open in befuddlement.

Three obnoxiously cheerful faces were grinning down at him.

"G'morning, Sleepyhead," said Sirius.

"What're you lot up to?" Remus slurred, sitting up and looking around in confusion at the giftwrapped packages he had put his head on by accident. "What's all this?"

Sirius frowned. "It's your birthday, you idiot."

"It is?" said Remus feeling more confused than ever. "No it's not."

"Course it is," said Sirius, flouncing onto the bed in a huff. "Tenth of September. I heard you tell Evans."

James and Peter laughed. "Merlin's pants! Imagine forgetting your own birthday!"

Remus stared at his friends in openmouthed surprise. Now that Sirius mentioned it, he did remember the conversation he'd had with Lily the previous winter, but he had never thought -- "You got me presents?"

"Open them!" said Peter excitedly, bouncing onto the bed beside Sirius.

Remus looked down at the two flat, square objects wrapped in shiny purple paper, and felt a lump form in his throat. Forcing down the wave of emotion, he tore open the first one, and found himself looking at the record Sirius had bought over the summer.

"You didn't like it?" he asked.

Sirius shrugged. "It was all right. I just thought you'd probably like it more."

James laughed. "More like it didn't annoy his parents enough."

"I need to find something louder," grinned Sirius. "Open the other."

The second record was Ziggy Stardust.

"I know you said it was a silly name," said Sirius, "but I thought you might like it anyway. I know you've got no way to play them here, but --"

"Sirius picked it out, and James and I paid for it," Peter broke in proudly. "Do you like it?"

Remus swallowed, forcing the troublesome lump back down again, and blinked a couple of times before looking up at his smiling friends. "These are brilliant," he said. "You're -- their great. Thank you."

"Didn't your family get you anything?" asked James, looking around.

"Um," said Remus, thinking as quickly as his sluggish brain would permit. He felt like a fraud, but how could he tell them that it wasn't really his birthday when they had gone to so much trouble? "They -- er -- got me something over the summer. A book. I forgot it at home, though."

The word "book" seemed to blunt the edge of his friends' curiosity. "Oh. Well, that's nice, isn't it?" James said, sliding off the bed. "We should get dressed. We've missed breakfast, but lunch will be on soon."

Remus scrambled out of bed and carefully stowed his new treasures in his trunk before bundling his robes into his arms and heading for the shower. He was feeling a bit overwhelmed, and was glad of a few moments to himself. The gifts had been a shock. With his father still out of work, Remus had not expected to have anything new of his very own anytime before next summer. That his friends cared enough to lavish such attention on him had caught him up short.

"They're brilliant," he whispered, giving his reflection in the bathroom mirror a crooked smile, and he didn't mean the LPs. Even years from now, long after Sirius, James and Peter had learned his secret and turned their backs on him, Remus would still have these gifts. He would still be able to listen to the music and remember the time when he had had such wonderful, generous friends.

In the common room on the way down to lunch, Remus was waylaid by Lily, who dropped a small but surprisingly heavy and lumpy package into his hands.

"Happy birthday, Remus."

"So, not a book, then," teased James, peering over Remus's shoulder.

Nestled in the paper was a black stone about the size of Remus's fist.

"You got him a rock?" asked Sirius incredulously.

Lily gave him a cold look before turning back to Remus. "It's a fossil. I found it on the beach in Brighton this summer. I thought you'd like it."

"It's really neat," said Remus, tracing the delicate spiral outline of a shell with his finger. "I'll show it to Dad. I bet he'll know what it is. Thanks, Lils." He ignored the rolling eyes of his friends and hugged her, tucking the stone into the pocket of his robes for safekeeping.

"So what d'you want to do today?" James asked him over lunch.

Remus shrugged. "Hadn't really thought about it. Study, I guess. We've got that essay for Charms --"

"No way!" declared Sirius. "It's practically illegal to study on your birthday. Think of something fun."

"It's your birthday, Lupin?" said Gideon, leaning across the table. "I didn't know. Happy birthday."

Remus blushed into his pumpkin juice as Fabian echoed the good wishes. When he had told Lily his birthday was in September, Remus had only meant to dodge the question, avoiding his true birthdate -- the date he had been bitten by the werewolf -- at all cost, and now here he was, having to lie to everyone about something so stupid. Why hadn't he picked a summer birthday? He had never meant for them to make a fuss over him like this.

Peter was proudly explaining to the Prewetts about the gifts he and the others had given Remus. "Muggle music, you know. Whadayacallums? Records. Two of those. They're supposed to be really good."

Gideon and Fabian nodded knowledgeably, opining that studying on one's birthday was bad for one's health and character, before being called away by Amelia Bones, who wanted to discuss the date of the next Advanced Defence Club meeting.

"What about Quidditch?" said James.

"What about it?" asked Remus warily.

Quidditch was rather a sore subject following James's disappointing tryout the previous day. He had spent all of that afternoon and evening in a rare sulk, until Remus had commented that if he wasn't careful, he'd turn into Sirius. Sirius's mouth had dropped open in outrage, and then he had laughed and thrown a pillow at James, saying that he'd better shape up, because the world wasn't ready for more than one Sirius Black. The mood had lightened considerably thereafter, and there had been no further mention of Quidditch. Until now.

"It's a nice day," James elaborated. "We could borrow brooms from the shed and play two-a-side. You can use mine, as it's your birthday."

There was a determined look in his friend's hazel eyes that told Remus that James was more interested in proving himself than in lighthearted play, and while Remus was not terribly keen on the idea of Quidditch himself, he did want to do something to repay at least one of his friends' generosity.

"Yeah, all right," he said. "Sounds like fun."

Hastily finishing their lunch, they retrieved James's broom from Gryffindor tower and hurried down to the broom shed to rummage for the rest of the equipment they would need, coming up with three more or less decent brooms, two practise hoops, and a slightly under-inflated Quaffle. They set up on a level patch of ground, pacing out the proper distance between the hoops, and James handed over his Nimbus 1000 to Remus.

"You and Sirius against me and Pete, yeah?" said James.

Remus nodded. "Sounds good to me."

Remus mounted the broom warily. Flying lessons the previous year had been a bit of a disaster, but Remus knew he could not avoid flying forever. He was among friends here, and the hoops had been set comfortingly low to the ground, so while he might embarrass himself, he probably would not do himself serious injury. Peter, too, seemed happy to skim along just above the grass.

They let Remus throw out the Quaffle, and then they were off. James was the superior flier, even on his borrowed broom, banking and swerving with a natural ease, as if this were the way his body was meant to move. Sirius, however, had got rather good at flying, himself, over the summer, and was able to give James a run for his money, dodging from side to side, and only throwing the Quaffle to Remus when James's block coincided with Peter flying in front of Sirius by accident. Remus caught the red ball on the tips of his fingers, and, squeezing the broom handle nervously between his knees, threw it through the goal hoop.

Sirius cheered. "Ten points for us!"

Once James got his hands on the ball, it proved almost impossible to get it back from him. As Sirius chased after his best friend, attempting to wrest the Quaffle from him by force, Remus hovered near the goal hoop, hoping to block it if James got too close.

The next minutes were a jumble of confused to-ing and fro-ing, and at one point, Peter forgot which goal hoop he was meant to be aiming for, and almost scored an own goal.

"You said you didn't have a good throwing arm!" James accused, when Remus put the Quaffle through his and Sirius's hoop for the fifth time.

Remus just grinned and swooped down to retrieve the ball. James's Nimbus did not wobble quite so much as the school brooms he had learned on, and he was slowly gaining confidence in his flying ability. It was actually sort of fun. He soared down to the centre of their makeshift pitch and threw the ball to Sirius, but Peter unexpectedly intercepted it.

"Throw it, Pete!" yelled James, racing Remus towards their goal.

With a shout, Sirius was after them, accelerating down the pitch. The Nimbus was the faster broom, and Remus reached the goal hoop well ahead of the other boys. His eyes darted between the two dark-haired shapes streaking towards him, then glanced at Peter, just as he threw the Quaffle.

The red ball sailed through the air. I can get this, Remus thought, and reached -- just as James and Sirius plowed heavily into him. Remus was knocked from his broom, and landed sprawling on the grass, Sirius on top of him.

"Oof!" gasped Remus.

"Ow." Sirius's voice was muffled in Remus's shirt. "Sorry."

James, who had somehow managed to keep his seat, quickly jumped off his broom and sprinted over, followed by Peter, to check on them. By the time he arrived, Sirius was already sitting up, rubbing his bruised knees.

"You OK, Remus?" asked James.

Remus nodded, massaging his chest, too winded to speak.

James reached down both hands, grinning, to help his friends to their feet. "Enough Quidditch for one day, maybe?" He seemed to be in considerably better spirits.

Remus took the offered hand and stood up shakily. Breathing hurt, but he didn't feel too badly damaged. He and Sirius limped along behind James and Peter as they returned the equipment to the broom shed.

"What now, d'you reckon?" asked Peter.

All Remus wanted was to sit down somewhere and have a quiet moment to catch his breath. Casting about for inspiration, his eye fell upon the hut that stood at the edge of the Forbidden Forest, smoke rising invitingly from its chimney.

"Hagrid's?" he wheezed.

The other three looked at one another and shrugged. Taking tea with the Hogwarts gamekeeper was a favourite pastime of the Prewetts, but was not something the four of them had ever done on their own.

Remus's knock on the heavy oak door was met with the sound of scrabbling claws and a deep, booming bark. Hagrid's huge elkhound, Fuzzball, was always eager to greet visitors, although Remus knew that the dog would change its mind as soon as it realised that those visitors included Remus.

"Down, Fuzzy!" shouted a gravely voice from within, and then the door was thrown wide, revealing the enormous figure of the gamekeeper.

Rubeus Hagrid was twice as tall as most men, and about three times as wide, and had more hair and beard than even Dumbledore. But what might have been an intimidating presence was tempered by the fact that Hagrid was also about five times as cheerful and friendly as most people. A broad smile split his bushy beard when he saw who stood on his doorstep.

"Oh, it's yeh lot," he said. "Come in, then. I'll put the kettle on."

Remus and the others filed in and hoisted themselves up onto the huge wooden chairs surrounding the kitchen table as Fuzzball retreated to the far corner of the hut, eyeing Remus with profound mistrust. Remus pretended not to notice. He was used to animals avoiding him. Unfortunately, the elkhound was not the only creature currently in residence.

"Whatcha lookin' at, Specky?" said a shrill voice as James peered curiously into a basket near the fire.

James gave an exclamation of surprise and nearly fell out of his seat. "It talks!"

"Ooh, aren't you the clever one?" said the voice. A furry, bright-eyed head popped out of the depths of the basket and glared around the room belligerently.

Remus shifted nervously in his seat, glad that he had chosen the chair farthest from the fire. A talking animal could be very bad news if it noticed him.

"Ar, don' pay it no mind," said Hagrid, beaming fondly at the creature. "It's only a Jarvey. He's got a bad leg, poor lad, so I'm nursin' 'im for a bit. Makes 'im techier than usual."

"Watch who you're callin' 'techy', you clumsy oaf!" the Jarvey chittered angrily.

Peter giggled. "I wish my Puffskein could talk. How cool would that be?"

The ferret-like creature eyed him balefully. "I been laughed at by better'n you, short-arse."

That set James and Sirius off. James pounded the table, and Sirius leaned back in his chair, roaring with laughter.

"Does it do that all the time?" fizzed Sirius. "Just have a go at people? That'd be a brilliant pet!"

"Oi, you nance!" squealed the outraged animal. "I ain't nobody's pet!"

"Settle down, you lot." There was an unaccustomed edge of irritation to Hagrid's voice as he placed a tray of mugs and a plate of biscuits on the table. "Don' get 'im worked up. Yeh'll set back 'is healing."

"Sorry," mumbled Peter, but Hagrid wasn't listening. He was kneeling over the Jarvey, crooning endearments and tipping a bowl full of what appeared to be dead mice into its basket. The squeaking insults subsided into the occasional mutter of "nance" or "oaf". Hagrid was smiling again by the time he pulled up a chair at the table to join them.

"They're clever little beasts," he told the boys. "Dunno why so many people call 'em pests. They're jus' bein' themselves. Don' mean any harm, do they?"

Remus smiled into his huge mug of tea. Hagrid's soft spot for creatures was legendary. It was said that he occasionally expressed a desire for a pet dragon.

I wonder what he'd think if he knew he had a werewolf over for tea? Remus thought. Hagrid might be one of those rare people who wouldn't care about his condition -- or more probably, would find it interesting, but not distressing. Even though he had no intention of sharing his secret, Remus felt a sudden surge of warmth towards the huge gamekeeper.

"What've you lads been up ter?" asked Hagrid, brushing biscuit crumbs from his beard. "Enjoyin' the new term?"

"It's Remus's birthday," Peter volunteered.

Remus blushed at the attention as Hagrid beamed at him. "Happy birthday, lad! Sorry there's nothin' more excitin' than biscuits in the house. Had a good day, have yeh?"

Remus nodded. "We played Quidditch. I'm not as good a flier as James and Sirius are, but it was fun."

"You're not bad," Peter told him, "and James can't've been that good, or he'd've been picked for the team."

"Oi, mate!" cried James. "I was bloody ace! It was just that girl Captain playing favourites, picking a girl for Seeker."

Hagrid raised his ample eyebrows. "That don' sound like Gertie Brown ter me. I always go down ter see Gryffindor play. My old House, yeah? An' apart from that Weasley, she's always put tergether a good team. If she didn' pick yeh, she must've thought someone else was better. Nothin' ter do with boys or girls."

James snorted his disbelief.

"I don't know much about Quidditch," said Remus carefully, "but it only took Hathersage about half as long to get the Snitch as it took you. Anyway, I thought her being sporty was one of the things you liked about her."

"Yeah, well that was before she took my spot on the team, wasn't it?" said James, but he had the grace to blush. "Trust you to take the girl's side, Lupin."

Sirius was shaking his head in disgust. "Dunno what tryout you were watching, Lupin. James flew a million times better than any girl."

"Yeah," agreed Peter, contradicting himself. "It's not fair, you not getting on the team. You were ace."

James looked slightly mollified by the loyalty of two thirds of his friends, but Hagrid frowned.

"Don' you lot be gettin' down on girls, or thinkin' they're not as clever or as good as yeh are at Quidditch or magic," he warned. "They jus' don' always think or do things the same way yeh would. If yer smart, yeh'll remember that."

Sirius grinned. "You and Lupin could start a 'We Love Girls' club."

"I like girls!" objected Peter. "And so does James. He let Hathersage kiss him."

James scowled. "Yeah. Right before she stabbed me in the back."

"I guess the wedding's off," laughed Sirius.

"You could apologise to her," suggested Remus. "She didn't yell at you when you were acting like a prat, so maybe she still likes you."

"Yeah," frowned James. "The least she could've done was told me to sod off."

They left Hagrid's hut not long after that. The Jarvey in the basket gave Remus a wary look as they departed, but much to his relief, said nothing. After supper, they returned to Gryffindor tower, and were surprised to find the Prewett twins grinning over a heap of Chocolate Frogs and butterbeers, while on the table beside them --

"Where did you find it?" breathed Remus, admiring the ancient hand-cranked gramophone.

"Borrowed it," Fabian said smugly. "Being Head Boy has its advantages, at least where old Sluggy is concerned."

"Didn't you say you got music for your birthday?" asked Gideon. "Go and get it."

Remus took the stairs up to the boys' dormitory two at a time to fetch down his birthday presents, and soon the magically amplified voice of David Bowie filled the Gryffindor common room. A few students looked annoyed, and departed for either the library or their dormitories, muttering about "too noisy to study", but more people seemed to enjoy the music than not.

James and Sirius invented a wild new dance, which they named "the Ziggy", jumping about and flailing their arms and spinning one another in circles, and soon half the common room was rolling with laughter at their antics. Lily only rolled her eyes, but Remus laughed so hard that he choked on his butterbeer, and had to be thumped on the back by Peter, who was also rather red in the face and having difficulty catching his breath.

"Come dance with us!" called Sirius, but Remus shook his head, still laughing.

Most of the remaining Gryffindors accepted Sirius's invitation, and before long, more than a dozen people were joyfully doing the Ziggy. The dance, however, proved to be physically demanding, and it was not too many minutes later that Sirius collapsed, exhausted, onto the sofa next to Remus.

"Good birthday?" asked Sirius, eyeing the still-flailing dancers with pride.

"The best," grinned Remus. "Thanks."

Sirius tilted his head and fixed him with a piercing grey look. "You don't smile enough. It's not good for you, you know. You'll end up looking like McGonagall if you're not careful."

Remus chuckled. "And you have a bad habit of making personal remarks, Mr Black."

"And you definitely don't laugh enough," Sirius went on, ignoring him.

I never had much to laugh about before I met you, Remus wanted to say. Instead, he just said, "You and James laugh enough for all four of us."

"Not good enough," Sirius said firmly, shaking his head. "I'm not picking up your slack anymore. I'm declaring it my mission in life to make Remus Lupin laugh as much as possible, even if it kills me."

That dragged another smile out of Remus. "If not you, then no one."

Sirius grinned. "I like a challenge."

The smile didn't leave Remus's lips as he took a last swig of butterbeer and settled back to watch his dancing Housemates. He decided that he liked having a September birthday. It had been a good one. And without knowing it, his friends had given him the best gift of all: at that moment, Remus Lupin felt just like a normal boy.

Chapter Text

Remus stared miserably up at the lamp hanging over his bed in the hospital wing, wishing he could just sleep. There was no part of his body that did not hurt, but this morning, his right shoulder was the worst of it. It did not feel broken, but he was fairly certain he had torn a muscle. His shoulder felt hot and swollen, and every time he moved, raw pain lanced down his arm and right side. And every time he drifted off, he moved.

Sheer exhaustion just after dawn had sent him into a fitful doze, shivering on the floorboards of the old house. He had even dreamed. The black dog had come to him -- had actually appeared for the first time in more than six years -- and sat before him, tongue lolling, wagging its plumed tail. Remus had knelt down and put his arms around its shaggy neck, burying his face in the thick, soft fur. The dog had licked his face once, then turned and trotted away into the swirling darkness that surrounded them, leaving Remus with a deep sense of loss. He wondered if he would ever see it again.

At sunrise, Madam Pomfrey, looking almost as exhausted as Remus felt, had come down to the Shrieking Shack -- as the citizens of Hogsmeade had taken to calling his safe house -- to tend his wounds and help him back to the castle. Remus had gritted his teeth against the pain as the floating stretcher bumped its way through the secret passage, out past the Whomping Willow, and through the early-morning autumn drizzle that turned everything a uniform shade of grey.

Remus had not slept since then. Madam Pomfrey had patched him up, and he probably could have asked her for something for his shoulder, but she was busy this morning, and he hadn't wanted to make any more demands on her time than necessary. There had been an outbreak of First Year Flu that week, and the matron had half a dozen other feverish, groaning patients to see to.

It was worse than Remus remembered. Over the summer, he had grown used to being with his family again. On those mornings, his bed was never far away, and he had had his mother, father and sister to care for him and keep him company. Now he had whatever few minutes the school matron could spare him and nothing to distract him from his misery. He hadn't even remembered to bring a book down to the hospital wing yet this year.

He wondered what his friends were doing, and whether they had missed him at all. He had sneaked away the previous evening after supper, without telling them that he was "going home" again. The deeper his friendship with his roommates grew, the more he hated having to lie to them. It had been bad enough the day before, telling them that he was "fine" every time they cast a worried look in his direction in Charms, History of Magic, and Potions, all of which had been complete disasters. At least today was Saturday, and he had not missed any classes.

The daylight hours passed in a reddish haze of pain, loneliness and exhaustion that seemed to last for weeks. When at last Madam Pomfrey poked her head in through the curtains and informed him that everyone was down at supper, and he could return to his dormitory, Remus reached for his robes, feeling about a thousand years old. The matron's brow creased in concern as he struggled to dress himself.

"Where does it hurt, lad?"

"My shoulder," he mumbled. "Think I tore something."

She pursed her lips. "Wait a tick. I'll get you something for it."

He stood, swaying, as her shoes tapped their way across the stone floor of the ward and back again. This time, when the curtains parted, she held a heavy stone jar in her hand.

"Murtlap ointment. Especially good for muscle pain," she told him. "Apply it to the affected area as soon as you get up to your room, and then again tonight, if you're awake. You might need it once more in the morning. Bring me back whatever's left when you have a minute tomorrow."

Remus thanked her and made his slow, laborious way up to Gryffindor tower, which was mercifully deserted. Once safely back in his dormitory, he went into the bathroom to splash some cold water on his face. Catching sight of himself in the mirror, he grimaced. His eyes were bloodshot and bruised-looking with exhaustion in the stark white of his face. Deciding he wasn't quite up to taking a shower, he stumbled to his bed, kicking off his shoes and shedding his robes onto the floor. Putting them away properly seemed like far too much trouble just at the moment.

The ointment was a pale blue and smelled strongly of wintergreen. Remus scooped out a liberal amount and rubbed it into his aching shoulder, but he could not quite reach the place on his back where the pain was worst. With a disgruntled sigh, he pulled his bed curtains closed, but sleep continued to taunt him from afar.

He reached for the copy of Pride and Prejudice on the nightstand, and opened it near the middle. He had read it so many times that it did not matter if he couldn't focus on the story. The familiar characters and scenes held the comfort of old friends. But reading proved more difficult than Remus had anticipated. With his right arm useless, he had to hold the heavy book in his left hand, and before long, that arm was aching, too, and he set the book aside again with a sigh.

Next, he tried writing to Nat, hoping to push back some of his loneliness and misery by conjuring his sister, but he could barely grip the quill, and gave it up as a bad job after a few illegible scribbles.

He was just shoving his writing implements into the nightstand drawer when he heard footsteps pounding up the stairs. Quickly pulling the covers up over himself, Remus closed his eyes. His bed curtains were shut, but that didn't always stop his nosy roommates.

The door burst open to laughter. "-- the look on Evans' face when you said --" Sirius broke off. "It smells like mint in here." Remus could picture him standing in the doorway, eyes narrowed, nose wrinkled.

"Your Puff better not have eaten all my toothpaste again, Pete," said James darkly. "Last time, he was sick on my pillow."

A brief sound of rummaging accounted for all toothpaste and Peter's Puffskein, Constantine, and his roommates seemed to find the mysterious smell not worth investigating further. However, there was a tense moment when Sirius noticed Remus's robes on the floor.

"Lupin's back," observed his friend in a low voice.

Remus tried hard to even out his breathing, feigning sleep, his heart hammering too loudly to hear James's quiet reply. Why had he just left his robes lying there like that? Stupid. Any minute now, they would push back the curtains and -- But they didn't, and after a moment, their discussion returned to the adventures of the day.

It didn't sound as though Remus had missed much -- the high point seemed to have been something James had said to Lily that Sirius and Peter found utterly hilarious, and she clearly had not -- but their laughter and the sounds of their voices only made Remus feel lonelier. He half wished he could pull open the bed curtains, and reenter the part of his life that he was forced to step away from with every moon, but he did not want to invite awkward questions about how unwell he looked.

His friends might as well have been hundreds of miles away like his family for all the comfort they offered. Even Lily, his best friend, the only person to whom he had ever voluntarily confided his secret, had not come to visit him all day. Of course, he had asked her not to last year. He did not like people seeing him like that, and such visits might draw unwanted attention to him, but it still would have been nice to see a friendly face.

By midnight, the dormitory had grown dark and quiet, but still the throbbing ache in Remus's shoulder prevented him from sleeping. He wondered how long one could go without sleep before going mad. Not counting the few minutes of oblivion he had achieved that morning, he guessed he was now at around forty hours.

He found himself longing for his mother -- for her sure, strong hands to massage the Murtlap ointment into his shoulder -- for the low, soothing sound of her voice singing him to sleep as she had when he was small. Tears leaked down Remus's cheeks, and he sniffed more loudly than he had intended.

Somewhere across the room, bedsprings shifted, and a quiet voice said, "Remus?"

He froze. Someone was awake. One of his friend had heard him crying for his mother. For a twelve-year-old boy, there could be few experiences more humiliating.

"Are you ill or something?" whispered the voice. Sirius.

For several seconds, Remus contemplated not answering, but he knew his friend. Even if he pretended to sleep, Sirius would be over in a moment to check on him. Nosy was what he was.

"No," he whispered at last, cursing the congested sound of his voice. "I'm OK."

"No you're not. You can't bullshit a bullshitter, Remus." It was a phrase they had heard a Hufflepuff fifth year use earlier in the week, and Remus knew his friend must have been aching for an excuse to try it out ever since.

"I'm fine," he insisted. "Good night, Sirius."

With a muttered word, light bloomed somewhere in the room. Remus could see the faint glow of it through his bed curtains, could hear the soft shuffle of bare feet on the stone floor. The curtains parted, and Remus squinted in the glare of wandlight, belatedly recalling his damp cheeks and wiping them quickly on the bed sheet.

"Put that out, Sirius," he hissed. "You'll wake James and Pete."

"I will if you tell me what's wrong," said Sirius. "Budge over. The floor's freezing."

"It's nothing." Remus reluctantly scooted over to make room for his friend. "I'm just feeling a bit under the weather. I'll be fine in the morning."

Extinguishing his wand, Sirius climbed up onto the bed and stuck his cold feet under the covers, forcing Remus to retreat even farther.

"Sure you will. And next month, you'll go away and come back again and disturb my beauty sleep blubbing into your pillow," he teased, sighing theatrically and flopping onto his back. "I'll be old and wrinkled before my time, and you'll be to blame, Lupin."

"My mother --"

"Is ill. You have to go home and see her. Tell me another. The 'my mother is ill' excuse only works on Pete and the very gullible."

"But --" Remus clutched at the lie woven to protect him.

"I wonder," Sirius mused, and Remus could just see his eyes gleaming in the darkness, "why it seems like your mum always needs to see you on the night of the full moon?"

Remus froze. No. If Sirius knew that the lie was a lie, Remus might lose his friends. But if Sirius had guessed the truth, Remus had lost everything. He was finished. He would be sent home tomorrow, his wand taken away and snapped in half.

"See, I have this theory," Sirius continued, oblivious to Remus's distress. "It's not your mum who's ill. It's you."

"I'm fine!" Remus said again, a little too quickly, a little too loudly. Cold sweat prickled his skin as panic twisted in his guts.

"Come off it, Lupin." Sirius's voice was smug. A chill ran down Remus's spine as he wondered whether the boy who had been his friend still held a wand. "Illness and absences around the full moon. Moodiness. Lying. And you know I've seen the scars. Unless you've got a really unfriendly pet you haven't mentioned, I'm pretty sure you're a werewolf."

All the blood left Remus's face as the accusation lashed through the air. He felt lightheaded. "That -- that's mad," he said, trying to make his voice sound scornful. If he could only get Sirius to doubt his guesswork -- "You think Dumbledore would ever let --?"

"Did you think you could hide it from us forever? C'mon, Moony! I guessed ages ago."

There was a smile in Sirius's voice that chilled Remus to the bone. What will he do to me? Weak as he was, there was no way he could get to his own wand in time. Sirius was a pure-blood, however hard he struggled against it, and some prejudices ran deep. Remus knew better than to expect anything but violence.

"Remus?" A hand on his chest.

He panicked. Throwing himself backwards out of bed, he thrashed against the tangle of drapes, and ran for the bathroom. Remus fell to his knees beside the toilet, and was violently sick, retching up what little he had eaten that day. He clung to the porcelain bowl, trembling, as dark spots swam before his eyes. If he fainted, he would be at Sirius's mercy.

Dimly, he heard the sound of running water, and then there was a cool hand on the back of his neck and a glass of water before him.

"It's OK." The voice sounded very far away. "Nothing bad is going to happen. I said I've known for ages, didn't I?"

Slowly, hands shaking, Remus reached for the glass of water and rinsed his mouth. He didn't know what to think or believe, but maybe -- just maybe -- he was not in immediate danger. He could not think of a good reason why Sirius would bring him water if he meant to attack him. He sagged back onto the tiled floor, eyes closed, as his pounding heart began to slow.

"All right?" asked Sirius. His fingers brushed the back of Remus's neck, and he felt a treacherous urge to relax into the soothing touch. "D'you want to go see Pomfrey?"

Remus shook his head, eyes still closed. He didn't want to see the matron, and he wasn't ready to face Sirius yet, either.

"Right, then. Back to bed?"

Sirius helped him to his feet and across the dark dormitory where, mercifully, James and Peter were still snoring. As Remus collapsed, weak-kneed, onto the bed, his shoulder gave a painful throb, forcing the air out between his teeth in a sharp hiss.

"You OK?" whispered Sirius, climbing up beside him.

"Yeah," Remus mumbled. "I just -- tore a muscle in my shoulder last night."

"Can I get you anything for it?"

Remus blinked at the unexpected question. "Pomfrey gave me some ointment. It's on the nightstand."

"This?" asked Sirius, reaching for the stone jar.

"Yeah. Thanks."

Hesitantly, Remus unbuttoned the top button of his pyjama shirt and pushed it back off his shoulder, but the muscle had swollen even more in the intervening hours, and the reach to apply the soothing ointment was more painful and awkward than ever. When Remus winced, Sirius picked up the jar.

"Turn around," he said. "I'll do it."

Remus stared at him. He would never have asked it. Sirius had already been a better friend that night than Remus had any right to expect. But for him to voluntarily offer to touch him -- to help him -- was unimaginable. Slowly, consumed by disbelief, Remus turned.

A hand coated in cool cream slid over his shoulder, and Remus groaned as instant relief spread in its wake. Sirius's fingers were deft and sure, gently but firmly massaging the ointment into the inflamed muscle.

"How -- how long have you known?" Remus asked after a moment.

"Last spring. James, too," he added as an obvious afterthought.

Remus jerked. "He -- what? James knows, too?"

"Yeah," said Sirius as he continued to work the cream into his skin. "We found out by accident when we broke into Pomfrey's office with the Prewetts."

"The Prewetts?" groaned Remus as Sirius dug his thumbs hard into the torn muscle. "Does anyone not know?"

"Shhh," Sirius whispered. "The Prewetts don't know anything. Well, they saw all the books on werewolves Pomfrey had, but they don't know it's you, so it's only me and James. We never even told Pete."

"What did James say when you found out?"

"He was a tit about it at first," Sirius admitted. "Remember how he was before Easter?"

"Oh." Remus had wondered what that had been about. "Does he hate me, then?"

"He got over it," said Sirius. "I didn't even have to hex him."

Remus didn't understand. Most wizards would never learn to accept someone like him, and they certainly wouldn't just "get over it". "But -- if you knew, then why -- not even Pete --?"

Sirius's hand stilled on his greasy shoulder. "We're your friends, all right? It's what friends do -- look out for each other and keep each other's secrets. Anyway, James said not to tell you we knew because it was right before exams."

Remus opened his mouth, but a sudden lump in his throat prevented any words from emerging. His eyes stung. Surely Sirius had somehow failed to understand the situation. Either that, or he was raving. He couldn't actually mean the things he had said. And yet, here he was, unafraid, touching Remus without any sign of disgust, calling him "friend" and claiming he had known his secret even when he had slept beside him at the Potters' house -- even during that awful scene in the Black family sitting room -- and had never once divulged it or thrown that knowledge back in Remus's face. Either he was mad, or he was a better friend than Remus had dared to hope for.

"Is this a dream?" Perhaps he would wake up tomorrow and everything would be back to normal. The thought saddened him. He so wanted it to be real -- for this to be his friend's reaction to learning his secret -- for his world not to end after all if he was found out.

Sirius laughed softly and pinched him just above the elbow. Remus jumped.

"You really don't hate me?"

"We don't hate you," Sirius assured him. "Really. I think it's kind of cool."

"It's not 'cool'," said Remus bitterly as Sirius tugged his pyjamas back up over his shoulder and returned the jar of ointment to the nightstand. "It's about the furthest thing from 'cool' there is."

"No," said Sirius, nestling down on the pillows and pulling the bedclothes up over himself. "The furthest thing from 'cool' is definitely Snivellus. You've got nothing to worry about."

Remus smiled reluctantly and slid under the covers beside his friend. "I guess I was an idiot, hoping no one would figure it out."

"A bit."

Remus contemplated the dark outline of his friend. He couldn't believe that James and Sirius had known for six whole months without letting on. Peter still didn't know, and Remus had never suspected a thing. They had kept his secret this long. Maybe they could be trusted to keep it long enough for Remus to sit his OWLs. Or even -- he dared to think -- his NEWTs. But he had to be certain that they understood what was at stake.

"Promise me you won't tell anyone?" he said urgently. "Dumbledore knows, and Madam Pomfrey. If you and James know, that's all right. Pete, too, maybe. But if anyone else ever finds out, I'm done for. I won't be able to go to Hogwarts anymore. I'll have to go home, and I'll never be a proper wizard."

"Your secret's safe with me," Sirius promised. "But --"

"But what?" Remus was still wary.

Sirius hesitated. "What's it like?"

There was an eagerness in his voice than made Remus squirm uncomfortably. He wrapped his arms protectively around himself. "You don't want to know."

"No, I do," Sirius insisted.

Remus turned away, and was silent for a long moment. He didn't want to talk about it. It was bad enough living it, and he was exhausted. But the truth might be the only thing capable of shocking Sirius into taking his secret and his promise to keep it seriously.

"It's -- terrible," Remus began softly. "You can't possibly imagine. I'm always watching the moon, knowing what's coming, and there's nothing I can do about it. Because I'm going to change. My body's going to turn itself practically inside out, and a monster's going to take over, and it's going to want to hunt and kill the people I care about. It's hungry for blood. So I lock myself away somewhere safe, to protect people, but I can't protect myself.

"The transformations -- I can feel my bones change shape, grinding and snapping. It hurts so much all I can do is scream and scream, but nothing can stop it or make it hurt less. And then the monster's there, and I'm locked away in a corner of its mind. I can see what it's doing and sense what it's feeling, but I have no control. It can smell people nearby, and on its own skin. When it can't get to them, it tears itself half to pieces, biting and scratching, and I wake up covered in blood the next morning, too weak to move or do anything to help myself."

Remus had never spoken so plainly about his transformations to anyone, but weariness had lowered his defences.

"I was six when I was bitten. I didn't know anything about werewolves, but I learned fast. You'd think the pain would be the worst of it, but it's not. I'm always scared I'm going to hurt someone. I have nightmares about my parents and my sister, dead, covered in blood, with their throats ripped open." He did not mention that of late, such dreams had come to include Sirius and his other friends from Hogwarts, bodies still, eyes sightless and staring.

"I worry all the time that someone will find out what I am. I see how they look at me when they know. I'm a disgusting thing that people hate, and I want to scream at them that it's not my fault, but I know what would happen if I met them in the wrong place at the wrong time. They're right to be afraid.

"My dad lost his job because of what I am. I hated myself for that. It messed up all our lives. We were always having to move and hide and lie. I didn't think I could ever go to school or have friends or stay in one place for very long."

His chest felt tight, and he took a deep, shuddering breath. "Mum and Dad and Nat have been great about it, though. One time, when I lost a finger --"

Sirius jerked and made an inarticulate sound of horror. "You what?!"

Remus shrugged, half sitting up, and winced as his shoulder twinged. "Sorry. It happens sometimes --"

But Sirius was turning away, scrabbling on the nightstand for his wand. "Lumos." He sat up, grabbing Remus's hands. "Which one?" he demanded.

Reluctantly, Remus spread his hands in the wandlight, and showed Sirius the jagged scars at the base of two of his fingers. "It's usually just toes," he told his friend. "And not more than once a year or so."

"Slytherin's arse, Remus," Sirius breathed, shaking his head.

"It's not hard to reattach them with magic. If you can find them, that is. But one time, they couldn't. Mum was going spare while Dad patched me up. Nat went down into the cellar to look for it. She was seven," he added softly. "She cried when she couldn't find it. Dad ended up having to buy a really expensive potion so I could re-grow it."

Sirius looked queasy. He extinguished his wand and flopped back down.

"Told you you didn't want to hear about it," said Remus, settling wearily against the pillows. He felt strangely light and peaceful after his whispered confession.

Tentative fingers brushed against Remus's knuckles. "I -- I don't know --"

"It's OK." He was touched that Sirius wanted to offer comfort even when Remus knew there was none to be had. "I'm used to it. And it's better, knowing I've got friends."

"Yeah," said Sirius. "Me and James -- we'll find a way to make it better. Maybe we'll be the first to find a cure for werewolfishness."

"Lycanthropy," Remus yawned. "It's called 'lycanthropy'. And you won't find one."

"We can look. We can get Pete to help, and --"



"Could you maybe -- not tell Pete just yet? And -- don't tell James that I know you know, either. I need to think about things, and I'd rather not have to answer a load of questions straight away."

"Yeah, OK."



"Thanks," mumbled Remus, eyelids fluttering closed. "Didn't want to lie to you."

"Didn't think you did it for fun," said Sirius, burrowing deeper under the blankets. "Now can I get my beauty sleep, Moony?"

Remus grimaced, but did not open his eyes. "Please don't ever call me that again, Sirius."

The last thing Remus heard before he drifted into sleep was the amused voice of the best friend he had ever known saying, "I swear it on my honour as a Black."

Chapter Text

"Observation." Professor Gandolfsson's eyes pierced each of his audience in turn. "The key to successful defence. The key to survival. Observe. Anticipate. Outwit."

It was Tuesday morning, and as usual, the second year Gryffindors and Slytherins were seated in the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom, warily eyeing their professor, in case he should fire an unexpected hex at one of their number. Or rather, not entirely unexpected. Not anymore.

It had been shocking and exciting the first few times it had happened, but they were five weeks into term now, and while there were occasional quiet bets placed on whether anyone would end up in the hospital wing that week, the thrill of it had worn off. Seeing a Slytherin get what was coming to them might be satisfying, but spending an entire morning being ranted at by Madam Pomfrey about "some people's irresponsible teaching methods" was not.

It was lucky that Professor Tynedale had spent so much time drilling shield charms into them the previous year. So far, Sirius had only suffered one rather humiliating Densaugeo, but that was quite enough for him.

"The trouble with you lot," Gandolfsson continued, "is that you don't see a thing unless someone shoves it under your noses and says 'Oi, you, look at this,' and even then, more often than not, you miss what's important about it. You're too used to the classroom environment -- being spoon-fed information and told what to think, so you can spit it back out when exams come around.

"You can't learn observation that way. Observation requires the ability to think for yourself -- to notice things about people and your surroundings that will give you the advantage and help you survive. Whether any of you are capable of that, I don't know. I'll wager no one's ever asked you to try before. People generally prefer children to do as they're told, and then they're surprised when those children grow into adults who die in their first real confrontation because they've misjudged the situation or the environment or their opponent."

His floating carpet drifted slowly between the rows of desks, and the students shifted nervously in their seats as he passed. It was difficult to take notes for this class because one had to be ready to drop one's quill and grab one's wand at a second's notice. Gandolfsson didn't approve of note-taking, in any case. He had informed them more than once that what he hoped to teach them would only ever be of use to them if they "internalised" it, whatever that meant. "An enemy won't give you time to check your notes," he said scornfully.

Sirius was not taking notes. He wasn't paying much attention to what Gandolfsson was saying, either. Instead, he was watching Remus, casting furtive glances at him from beneath his eyelashes every minute or so.

He had been watching Remus for over a week now, ever since their late-night talk, wondering how he had misjudged things so badly. He had expected Remus to be relieved to discover that he didn't have to hide his secret from his friends, but Remus had been terrified, and since that night, his performance in class had suffered. He had a tendency to start and drop things whenever anyone spoke sharply to him or even called his name unexpectedly.

That night had also forged a connection between the two of them that Sirius felt as an almost physical pull. He wondered if Remus felt it, too. Sometimes it seemed as if Remus could feel Sirius watching him, and their eyes would meet. Sirius would flash him a reassuring grin, and Remus would answer it with a sickly attempt at a smile. He had only wanted to make Remus feel better, but somehow, it hadn't worked out that way.

"Observable phenomena," said Gandolfsson. "Black."

The Defence master's carpet halted inches from Sirius.

"Sir?" Sirius asked, sitting up straighter.

Gandolfsson pursed his thin lips. "In simple terms, for your benefit: something you can tell about a person by looking at them."

"Er -- how old they are?"

"Correct. If a bit weak." The professor's tone suggested that he had expected no better from Sirius. He moved away, leaving Sirius to scowl at his back. "Someone else. Evans."

"They could be wearing a wedding ring," suggested the red-haired girl.

"Typical female answer, but again, correct, so far as it goes. Rings can be removed, but if worn regularly they may leave a groove or pale mark around the base of the finger. Lestrange."

"You can tell if someone's quality or not by their clothes. Usually." Rabastan Lestrange cast a sneering glance in Sirius's direction. "Like how you can tell Lupin's a Mudblood from the state of his robes alone."

Sirius shot the big Slytherin a poisonous look. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Remus's shoulders hunch, his knuckles whitening around his quill. Any other professor would have given an instant detention to a student who used that word in their classroom, but Gandolfsson had yet to assign a detention for any reason.

"That may be," said Gandolfsson mildly. "But when private observations become common knowledge, you lose any advantage you might otherwise have had. Learn to keep your eyes open and your mouth shut, Mr Lestrange."

Lestrange turned a furious red, and Sirius relaxed slightly. Perhaps he and James would concoct some brilliant vengeance later for the insult to their friend.

Gandolfsson had meanwhile drifted back to the front of the classroom. "Economic status, blood status; the quality and style of clothing and grooming habits can often provide clues to these things, but are not foolproof. In the end, one can only guess. But the better you are at observation, the more clues you are able to gather, and gather quickly, the closer your guesses are likely to come to the truth.

"Now. Environment. You've attended classes in this room for over a year now, I believe. Tell me, if an attack came through that door," he waved his maimed hand at the entrance to the classroom, "how would you escape? Rosier."

"Stupefy is always a good one, Sir," said the curly-haired Slytherin. "Though personally I like --"

Gandolfsson's carpet slid forwards until he was nose-to-nose with his quarry. "I didn't ask what you'd do if the first year Hufflepuffs rushed in armed only with spoons, Rosier," he growled. "I'm talking about adults who are here to kill children. You need to get out, and fast. How do you do it?"

Rosier closed his mouth and glanced around nervously for inspiration. "Er -- the windows, Sir?"

"Do they open?"

"I don't know, Sir."

Gandolfsson turned away, disgusted.

"You could just break them," said Sirius.

The carpet span around, and piercing eyes glared straight into Sirius. "What's the charm for removing an obstruction from one's path?" he demanded.

"I don't remember it, Sir," gritted Sirius, willing himself not to lean away. "But you could smash them with a chair or something."

Gandolfsson gave him a long, measured look before nodding once in what looked oddly like approval. "Very good, Black. Not a solution that would occur to most pure-bloods. Of course, you're still left with the problem of how to reach the ground or one of the towers safely." He turned away. "Other exits. Potter."

Not wishing to be outdone by his best friend, James had raised his hand. "There could be a hidden door somewhere, Sir. The castle's full of them, isn't it?" He pointed towards a poorly-executed tapestry of a dragon that hung on the back wall of the classroom. "Maybe there."

"Pettigrew, if you would?" said Gandolfsson, raising his eyebrows at Peter, who was seated nearest the tapestry.

Peter almost knocked his chair over in his haste as he leapt up and tugged the hanging aside to reveal a low door, iron-studded and barely three feet high. A couple of people gasped. Gandolfsson did not seem surprised by the discovery, however.

"Correct, Potter. Very good. It's vital to identify all exits and potential danger spots in any environment. You should know them without thinking in the places you frequent regularly. Your assignment for next Tuesday's class is to make a list of ten observations about this school and its environs that are useful from a defensive standpoint. The more specific, the better. And now, desks away --"

Everyone hurriedly stood as Gandolfsson waved his wand, whisking desks and chairs to the edges of the classroom. It was his usual habit to use the second half of Tuesday's double lesson for duelling practise, or as he called it, defence drills.

Sirius stepped closer to James, eyes flicking towards Remus once more. The brown-haired boy clutched his wand and stared unhappily at the floor. For the most part, Gandolfsson let the class choose their duelling partners, though he scoffed at any boys who chose to work with girls. He insisted, however, on pairing Remus with Snape, saying that they could only benefit from working together. While Remus excelled at Defence, Snape was fast and knew a number of nasty jinxes. Snape did not look any happier with the arrangement than Remus, and Sirius hoped that Remus's current state of distraction would not land him in the hospital wing again, as it had the previous Tuesday, with slugs pouring from his mouth.

Lily Evans, who would normally have paired off with either Snape or Remus, gave Gandolfsson's back a disgruntled look, and stalked off to stand with Dorcas Meadowes. Peter, blushing and looking rather forlorn, hurried over to Matilda Hathersage. Sirius smirked. While Peter liked girls, he was also terrified of them, but not as terrified as he was of the Slytherins.

Once everyone had selected their duelling partners, they moved apart, to opposite sides of the classroom, facing off. Sirius found a place near Remus and muttered, "All right?" under his breath.

Remus jumped, his wand clattering to the floor. "Fine," he mumbled, retrieving it, red-eared.

But Gandolfsson had seen. "What the hell was that, Lupin? Do you want to be an Auror, or do you want to die in your first fight?"

The flush spread from the neck of Remus's robes to his hairline. "Sorry, Sir. Won't happen again."

But the additional blow to his confidence did Remus no good at all. His shield charms were weak, and a couple of times, Sirius had to contrive to stumble in front of him, so that his own shield would deflect Snape's hex.

Sirius himself was having no better luck with James. With his attention divided, James managed to disarm him repeatedly, and blast him off his feet half a dozen times.

"Focus, Black!" bawled Gandolfsson from the front of the classroom, where he presided over the chaos. "Keep your damn eyes on your opponent!"

Sirius clenched his jaw as they switched, James performing shield charms to deflect Sirius's jinxes. So Sirius was quite surprised when he ended up flat on his back, head throbbing from where it had hit the edge of a desk.

"Are you OK?" Remus knelt over him, looking concerned.

"Yeah." He sat up. "What happened?"

"Snape," Remus muttered.

Sirius rubbed the back of his head, glancing across the room to where Snape's cold black eyes regarded him.

"Oops," said the Slytherin dispassionately. "Guess I missed."

Gandolfsson had either not noticed Snape's "slip" or else did not care. "Up!" he bellowed. "Get up, Black. The enemy won't give you breathing room."

Remus gave him a hand up, and Sirius took his duelling stance once more, seething. Now, by some chance, every third hex he cast managed to miss James entirely, veering to bounce off Snape's rather solid shield charm. Snape's sneer became more pronounced, but beyond that, he pretended not to notice the attacks.

By the end of class, Sirius had not managed to get under either James or Snape's defences, and was feeling thoroughly disgruntled, besides having a headache.

As the four of them made their way back up to Gryffindor tower to drop off their things before lunch, Sirius turned on Remus with a snarl. "Why do you let him pair you with sodding Snivellus all the time?"

Remus shook his head. "I guess because -- maybe he's right. I mean, I don't like it, but Snape's good at Defence. If I have to try harder, I'll get better. It makes sense, doesn't it?"

Sirius scowled. "Well, I don't like it. And it didn't look like you were getting any better today."

Remus hunched his shoulders, but said nothing.

Peter caught the look on his face and patted Remus's shoulder. "Gandolfsson thinks you're going to be an Auror. He said so. That's good, isn't it?"

For some reason, this made Remus look even more miserable than before. "M'not going to be an Auror," he mumbled.

"Not if you let Snape kill you before you've even finished school," laughed James.

"Halloween's coming up in a few weeks," Sirius reminded them, brightening. "I'd say after the way they were acting today, the Slytherins are due for a good pranking. Seems like they've forgotten how pretty they looked in pink."

Little as he enjoyed Defence Against the Dark Arts lessons, Professor Gandolfsson's lecture on observable phenomena had got Sirius thinking. It had never occurred to him that one could learn much about people by looking at them, or by paying attention to the things they did, or by listening to how they said things, or what they didn't say, rather than just what they said. He supposed that it was the same sort of thing that the Prewetts did when they went investigating, and how he had figured out Remus's secret the year before. As a result, Sirius found himself watching the people around him more closely than usual. Especially his friends. Especially Remus.

He had lived with the other boy for over a year now, and knew many things about him, but how well did he really know him, or any of his roommates? Sirius began testing himself. What were their favourite foods? Their favourite things to do? What did they care about or think about or worry about most? If he couldn't readily answer one of the questions he posed himself, he tried to see if he could figure it out by watching and listening.

When the weather began to turn and Peter started wearing the ugly jumper that his mother had knitted him the previous year for Christmas, Sirius figured out that he missed her more than he let on. Peter complained loudly whenever he received a coddling letter from home, but Sirius noted that he bit his lip as if trying not to smile. Sometimes the blond boy dropped out of conversations entirely, unnoticed by the others, and stared out the window, looking troubled.

When James snarked at Matilda Hathersage, and she spun away, looking confused and hurt, Sirius saw that his best friend hid a furtive, guilty look behind his laughter. A few times, he caught James casting glances in the red-haired Seeker's direction during meals. He never mentioned the girl in private anymore, nor did any of the others, and he wasn't talking as much about Gryffindor's chances at Quidditch as he had last year.

But the most significant thing Sirius noticed in the week following Professor Gandolfsson's lecture was the way Remus watched all of them. Remus's emotions were harder to read than his other friends', and Sirius guessed that was because of what he was. Hiding and keeping secrets had become second nature to him, and keeping his feelings to himself was part of that.

It was not difficult for Sirius to deduce Remus's agitation, however, nor to guess that the cause was the conversation they had had following the last full moon. After a couple days of watching Remus and listening to the things he said, Sirius realised what he was doing. He was sounding out his friends, checking as subtly as possible to see what they really thought of him.

"How're your mum and dad?" he asked on Wednesday when James received a letter from home. "I had a great time at your house over hols. Thanks for inviting me." Which Sirius guessed meant, Did you really knowingly invite a werewolf into your home without telling your family?

"They're good," replied James. "They really liked meeting you."

On Thursday, Remus commented on how much Peter loved his Puffskein. "You're almost as bad as Hagrid is with his creatures. You never know what he's going to have next time we visit."

"Yeah," said Peter with a nervous laugh. "The sorts of things he likes, someone's going to lose a limb one of these days."

It was only after seeing the corners of Remus's mouth tighten that Sirius realised Remus had been checking for Peter's opinion on creatures more dangerous than his pet.

Pete will be fine with it, he wanted to tell Remus, but he wasn't entirely sure that was true. Peter was nervous about a lot of things, and would probably be terrified when he learned the truth. Sirius and James would just have to make sure he was more scared of what they would do to him if he told anyone than he was of Remus.

Remus's performance in their lessons continued to suffer. In Charms on Friday morning, he could not get his mouse to make a peep, let alone sing the school song. He seemed as distracted as he usually was right before the full moon, and he kept shooting glances at James and Peter, and occasionally at Sirius as well. Sirius was so busy feeling guilty that he might be indirectly responsible for the downturn in Remus's marks that he barely noticed when his own mouse took advantage of his inattention and made a bid for freedom.

His observation of Remus was failing to yield as many satisfactory answers as Sirius would have liked. When Remus failed to do more than scratch down a few words in History of Magic, Sirius became worried. Without Remus's notes and his ability to make history sound vaguely interesting, there was no way Sirius would be able to pass the class. Deciding that a more direct approach was in order, he tore off a corner of his parchment, and with a nudge of his wand, flicked the note onto Remus's desk. What's wrong? it said. Talk to me. But Remus just shook his head.

It was easier to pester him under the noise and murk of Potions class. Normally, Remus worked with Lily, but Sirius grabbed him by the elbow and dragged him over to his own cauldron instead.

"What's wrong with you?" he muttered. "I thought you'd be glad we didn't care."

Remus shot a quick sideways glance around to room to make sure they weren't overheard. "I am. Just -- are you sure James isn't bothered? Only, he gave me a funny look the other day."

"If he did, it's probably because you've been acting like a complete numpty in class lately."

"Maybe," said Remus distractedly, checking the list of ingredients in his Potions book against the cluster of objects and beakers on the desk.

Sirius scowled. "How long are you going to keep playing this stupid game, Lupin? You're pretending you don't know we know, I'm pretending I haven't told you we do, James is pretending he doesn't know, and we're all pretending there's nothing to know, just to keep Pete in the dark. We can't keep it up forever. Why don't you just tell them?"

"I'm just not sure I'm ready yet," Remus mumbled.

"We'll all be old and wrinkly before you're ready," said Sirius irritably, snatching the beaker Remus had been tilting over the cauldron out of his hand and handing him the other one instead. "No, this one first. Merlin's beard, you stink at Potions! Why is that?"

Remus mumbled something about smells, and Sirius cast him a quizzical look. "What smells?"

"Everything," sighed Remus. "It comes with being -- you know. I can smell everything. Half the time in this class, I have a pounding headache, and the rest of it, I feel like I'm going to be sick, if not both."

"Oh." Sirius remembered skimming over a mention of heightened senses in the werewolf book James had stolen from Madam Pomfrey's office the previous year, but he hadn't considered what that might mean. "That stinks. Er -- no pun intended. Does everything just smell really awful all the time, then?"

"No, but this classroom usually does. If it's not the ingredients, then it's someone burning their potion. Usually me," he added with a wry smile.

"All right, so you're never going to be a Potions ace," said Sirius. "But you don't have to go and fail all your other classes, too. I think you should just tell them and get it over with. You'll see. Everything will be fine."

Remus looked profoundly uncomfortable, but that might just have been the toadflax Sirius was chopping, which even he had to admit did not have an especially pleasant aroma. "I'll tell them soon."

"If you don't," said Sirius, scooping the shredded plant into the cauldron, "I will."

Professor Gandolfsson was not impressed with their observations of the castle and its defences.

"'You can't Apparate into or out of Hogwarts. There are many warding spells on the castle'," he read off one parchment in a sneering tone. "These are not observations. These are things you have been told."

Sirius glanced around surreptitiously to see who was blushing, glad at least that it wasn't his own parchment Gandolfsson was reading from. Not that he thought his own answers concerning the school's many hiding places, and which areas were protected by passwords, were much better.

The Defence master shuffled through the stack of parchments until he came to one he seemed to like better. "Ah, here we are. 'The castle is built high ground, giving it good visibility in all directions. The changing staircases can be an advantage if one knows the pattern.' Very good, Lupin," he nodded approval, glancing at a few more parchments before adding, "Don't let your friends copy off you in future."

Sirius scowled. He had only stolen three of Remus's observations, making sure they weren't the same ones James and Peter had used, and he had changed the order and the wording, which was at least as much work as coming up with a complete list himself. He saw that the back of Remus's neck had gone a dull red. It was unfair of the professor to come down so hard on Remus, just because he helped his friends.

"There's no way for me to know for certain which of you are truly unobservant, and which are only lazy," said Gandolfsson. "But it doesn't matter, since both attitudes will render you equally dead. It seems I have failed to impart to many of you the importance of what I am attempting here. I do not have much experience with children, it is true, so perhaps the failing is mine, but I know no other way to impress upon you the fact that the things you learn in this classroom will keep you alive. I assume everyone here has an interest in that. Lupin."

Before Sirius could blink, Gandolfsson's wand was up and Remus was knocked sideways out of his seat to land heavily on the stone floor. Sirius stood up so fast that his own chair fell back with a clatter, his wand pointing at the Defence master's chest.

"Stop picking on him!"

Gandolfsson's piercing eyes transfixed him with a look of disdain. "Lupin, tell your girlfriend to sit down."

A few people giggled, and Sirius's cheeks burned. He snatched up his chair and sat.

Gandolfsson continued to stare straight into him. "If I'm 'picking on him', as you so eloquently put it, Miss Black, it's only because I believe he shows the potential his peers lack, and I intend to do what I can to see that he lives up to that potential. If that means knocking him on his arse a few times, then so be it."

No one moved. Remus remained on the floor, not looking at him.

"You will learn to control yourself in my classroom, Mr Black," Gandolfsson continued, dropping the derogatory feminine. "A man should not be ruled by his emotions. Detention Saturday after supper in my office."

Sirius's jaw dropped, but the Defence master had already turned back to Remus, saying, "Back in your seat, boy. Maybe when you start paying attention in my class again, you won't end up on your arse quite so much."

Sirius blinked at James in astonishment, but his friend only shrugged. Detention from Gandolfsson was unheard of. But somehow, Sirius had managed it. He was no stranger to punishment, having served several weeks' worth of detentions the previous year, but in every case, Sirius had known what line had been crossed, frequently before he crossed it. This time, he was completely mystified.

"Come in."

Sirius pushed open the heavy door, almost more curious than nervous. Professor Gandolfsson was seated behind a heavy and highly polished desk, going through a stack of parchment. He watched Sirius enter the room, fingertips resting lightly on his wand until he was assured of his visitor's identity, then waved his hand towards a chair, indicating that Sirius should sit.

"I don't believe in writing lines or cleaning or that fetch-and-carry nonsense that most of your teachers will give you," he said without preamble. "That sort of thing might bore you into submission, and make you wish to avoid trouble on that account, but it won't make you a better wizard."

"Yes, Sir," said Sirius warily. "What do you want me to do?"

Gandolfsson pulled open one of the desk drawers and drew out a photograph, which he slid across the desk towards Sirius. The image showed a few people seated around tables outside a cafe, and a busy street behind them. The girl in the foreground of the picture raised a mug to her lips every now and then as her eyes moved back and forth over a newspaper.

"We're going to work on honing your observation skills, Mr Black," Gandolfsson informed him. "You will spend the next hour examining this photograph. At the end of that time, you will make ten useful observations about it. You may begin --" he took out a large, gold pocket watch and glanced at the face of it, "-- now."

Sirius picked up the photo and held it in his lap. He scrutinised each of the people in the foreground, and then those in the background. He counted silently and determined that the action of the picture repeated every thirteen seconds. He looked at the newspaper the girl was reading, at the sign over the cafe door, at the buildings and the few spindly trees planted along the street.

The minutes ticked by. After five, Sirius had the photograph memorised. After ten, he was bored out of his mind. He had no idea what Gandolfsson would consider to be "useful observations", but he was fairly certain that he would dream the loop of the image that night when he went to bed.

He wondered idly what the girl was drinking, and tried to figure out if she was enjoying it by watching her facial expression, or whether she was too caught up in her newspaper to notice. By the time Gandolfsson looked up from his papers, Sirius had given most of the people in the picture names, and made up stories about several of them to entertain himself.

"What have you got for me, Black?" the Auror asked.

"Er --" Sirius tried to recall the few observations he had made early on, but he had forgotten most of them, caught up as he was in the thrilling tale of the girl (whose name was Juniper, he decided) sitting at the cafe, waiting to meet a man who would send her on a mission to discover the fate of her long-lost family. "The newspaper's in English. And it's Mugglish. The pictures in it don't move."

"What else?" Gandolfsson's expression conveyed nothing.

"The -- the trees all have leaves on, so it's spring or summer. Probably spring. A lot of people are wearing coats."

The Defence master nodded, but said nothing.

"It's in colour," Sirius continued, groping desperately for details. "I saw women dressed like that girl over the hols, so it's recent. Oh, the clock on the church tower shows one o'clock, so everyone's probably off to lunch."

Gandolfsson pursed his thin lips. "Anything else?"

"Er --"

"The people, Black. That's what an Auror would concern himself with," said Gandolfsson, exasperated. "If you were there, you'd know where you were and what time of day and year it was, wouldn't you?"

"Oh." Sirius felt intensely foolish. "I guess so, Sir."

"Tell me, Black, are all the people in this photograph Muggles?"

Sirius glanced at the image again. "I -- I don't know, Sir."

"See if you can spot a wizard."

There was a long moment of silence as Sirius stared intently at the picture, then, "That man," he said, pointing. "He could be a wizard."

"And what makes you say that, Mr Black?" Gandolfsson asked.

Sirius bit his lip. "My father has a coat just like that. And his hair's a bit long for a Muggle that old, isn't it?" He glanced up at the Auror.

Gandolfsson was nodding slowly. "Very good. Wizarding fashion is often notably behind the times by Muggle standards. Any other witches or wizards?"

Sirius glanced at the photo again, but after a moment, shook his head.

"At which table is the photographer sitting?" Gandolfsson asked.

Sirius looked again. "Oh! He's sitting with the girl. And it's a magic picture. Is she a witch, then?"

Gandolfsson nodded. "Half-blood, raised in the Muggle world. Makes it easier to blend in. You, my lad, would stick out like a sore thumb. You want to work on that. She and the photographer are tailing the gentleman in the coat that you spotted. Who, by the way, is not wearing his own face. Polyjuice," he elaborated when Sirius looked confused. "A potion for disguising the features."

"Am I meant to know that from looking at the picture, Sir?" asked Sirius.

Gandolfsson gave a bark of laughter. "Not bloody likely. But you might note that the man in question seems unaware that he is being followed, which is all to the good for my people."

"Did they catch him, Sir?" Sirius asked. "Who is he? What did he do?"

"The man's name is Durannus Lestrange," said Gandolfsson. "He was suspected of involvement in the Easter Murders last spring. And no, nothing was ever proven against him."

"Oh." Sirius's cousin Bellatrix had married a Rodolphus Lestrange -- the elder brother of Rabastan -- so he was probably related to this Durannus somehow by marriage, though he had never heard of him.

"Our enemies are clever, Black. Never suppose they aren't," Gandolfsson said tartly. "Tell me, what's the number one thing you should be watching out for?"

"Er -- danger, Sir?" Sirius hazarded.

"Yourself, boy." Gandolfsson frowned his displeasure. "I've been watching you, Mr Black. Don't think I haven't. I know things about you that you probably don't even know about yourself yet. You're too public with your feelings. Believe me when I tell you that your enemies will have no trouble spotting and exploiting your weaknesses. If you will insist on wearing your heart on your sleeve, it just makes it that much easier for someone to stick a knife in it. And they will, one day. I can promise you that."

"Sir?" said Sirius, confused.

"Think on it," said Gandolfsson. "Good night, Mr Black."

Sirius left the office, closing the door behind him and feeling very much as if he had missed something.

Chapter Text

It had been a quiet weekend. Uneventful. But Peter never minded that quite as much as James and Sirius did. It was nice just to be at Hogwarts with his friends, and every now and then to have an afternoon, or even a whole day, to not think about homework.

Peter cast a guilty glance at his half-finished Transfiguration assignment, and wondered just how thin Professor McGonagall's lips would get if he failed to turn it in on time tomorrow. It hadn't seemed important that afternoon during the impromptu Exploding Snap tournament in the common room, but now, after supper on Sunday evening, with Transfiguration looming in the morning, Peter was not certain when he had thought he would have time to finish it.

At least they didn't have Defence Against the Dark Arts tomorrow; Professor Gandolfsson made him more nervous than the rest of the Hogwarts staff and the Slytherins combined. It was bad enough worrying that he might be hit with a random hex in the corridors between classes without worrying that it might happen in class, too. But for the most part, the prickly Auror ignored Peter, much as he did the girls in their class, and Peter was glad of that, even though he knew it meant Gandolfsson didn't think he was up to much. The Defence master had not said as much directly to Peter, but he clearly considered him to be in the category of those who would likely snuff it in their first real fight, and Peter privately agreed with that assessment. Better to avoid fighting altogether.

He shrugged off the gloomy thought and turned back to Constantine, his pet Puffskein, whom he was trying to tempt with a stale bread roll he had brought back with him from supper. Peter had considered smuggling up something more enticing, like a bit of treacle tart, but it had proved too great a temptation, and had not made it past the doors of the Great Hall. Constantine was sniffing the roll suspiciously -- or rather, Peter thought he was; he was not very clear on whether Puffskeins had noses -- when the dormitory door banged open and the ball of caramel-coloured fluff disappeared with an alarmed squeak into the dusty recesses beneath the bed.

James glanced up from his own Transfiguration homework as Sirius flopped down onto his bed with a sigh.

"Remus has gone home again, has he?" James asked casually.

Sirius gave his best friend an annoyed look. "He knows."

"What?" asked Peter blankly, as James, brow furrowed, echoed him.

"He knows," repeated Sirius, sitting up. "He knows we know. I told him last month."

"What?" said Peter again. Clearly he had missed something.

James frowned. "That was our secret. You should've told me you were going to tell him."

"It was his secret," scowled Sirius. "Don't need your permission to tell him, do I? You just said not to tell him last year because of exams; you didn't say anything about this year or about consulting you first."

"What?" Peter said, a small whine of irritation creeping into his voice. He was beginning to feel not only left out of the conversation, but invisible as well.

James sighed, ignoring him. "Fine," he said. "He know we know. And now you've told me so in front of Pete, which means --"

"Remus said it's OK to tell him," said Sirius. "He's going to find out eventually one way or another, isn't he?"

James and Sirius both turned to stare at him, matching looks of calculation in their eyes, and Peter suddenly wished that he was invisible. Perhaps Constantine had had the right idea, hiding under the bed. Peter was not so sure he wanted in on whatever the secret was after all. It didn't sound like the fun sort.

"What?" he said nervously, looking back and forth between the two of them.

When his friends crossed the room and sat down on either side of him, Peter felt suddenly trapped. He tried to smile. Maybe it was a joke of some kind.

"Lads? What's going on?"

The two dark-haired boys exchanged a silent look, and then Sirius nodded once, yielding to James, whose eyes shifted back to Peter for another long, considering look.

"Pete," he said at last, "you ought to know. Remus is a werewolf."

"I don't get it," Peter frowned. If it was a joke, it was either a poor one, or they hadn't reached the punchline yet. Either way, he wished his friends wouldn't mess him about like that.

Sirius snorted. "There's nothing to 'get', you prat. Remus is a sodding werewolf."

Peter's brows drew together as he looked back and forth between his two friends, searching for the first hint of a smile. "But that's not funny," he said.

"It's not meant to be funny," sighed James, running a hand through his hair and making it stick up even more than usual. "It's meant to be true."

"It can't be true," Peter said with almost complete confidence. He'd heard stories about werewolves, and even seen a couple of articles about werewolf atrocities in the Daily Prophet. "Werewolves are all hairy and they eat people and have red eyes and pointy teeth and -- and fingernails like claws. And anyway, Dumbledore would have to know. He'd never let one in the school."

"That's all you know," sneered Sirius.

James shushed him. "Look out the window, Pete. The moon's rising. It's full tonight. And Remus is gone. He's gone every month at this time. Dumbledore's got a place he can lock himself up so he won't hurt anyone when he changes."

The words, spoken so matter-of-factly sent a chill down Peter's spine. But it couldn't be true. It's just couldn't. "Remus can't be -- he's not like that!"

"No," said James quietly. "He's not. He's not a monster, Pete. It's not his fault, what happened to him. He's just got a -- a furry little problem." He flashed a brief smile at Sirius, who gave a huff of laughter.

Peter was silent for a moment. Remus was gone, and it was the full moon tonight. That much was fact. And then there was Constantine's irrational fear of their quiet roommate. It might all make sense if --

"No," said Peter quietly. Then louder, "No!"

He jumped off the bed and whirled to face them, fists balled up at his sides, ears and nose going pink. "You're having a laugh," he accused them. "But it's not funny. Werewolves are monsters! Everyone knows it! They kill people and -- and drink their blood, or else they turn them into monsters, too. Why are you being horrible to me? Why are you being horrible to Remus? What's he done?"

James and Sirius exchanged a look, but before either of them could speak, a faint howl drifted through the window on the night air.

Peter's eyes went wide, and he turned pale. "That -- that's not --" "Remus," said James impatiently. "It's Remus. And he'll be like that until dawn. And then he'll be just like he usually is again. Your friend. Your roommate."

"No." Peter almost stamped his foot. His arguments were running out and neither James nor Sirius had cracked a smile yet. They never let a joke run on this long. His voice was almost tearful as he pleaded with them. "You can't be friends with a werewolf. You can't trust them. You have to ring your bed in silver, or they'll kill you in your sleep. They're murderers! Freaks! Half-breeds! You know it's true!"

They moved so fast that Peter had no time to do more than take a step back before he found himself flat on his back on the bed, Sirius holding his arms, and James pointing a wand at his throat, twin looks of barely-suppressed rage on their faces.

"Are you quite finished?" James asked coldly.

Peter swallowed, nodding once, eyes crossing as he tried to look at the wand tip.

James's voice was soft and even as he continued. "Now that you've got all the stupid out of your system, I'm going to tell you how it is. Remus is a werewolf. Dumbledore knows. Pomfrey knows. We know. No one else, and that's how it stays. You're not to breathe a word of it to anyone. Ever. Because he's one of us, whatever he is."

"If you ever tell anyone," hissed Sirius, "or if you ever say 'freak' or 'monster' or any of that bollocks to him, you'll have to deal with us, and believe me, that conversation will make this one seem like a nice day at the Quidditch."

Peter looked up at the cold grey and hazel eyes above him and swallowed again, heart pounding. They weren't joking. But if they weren't, then that meant Remus really was a werewolf. The same Remus who had helped him with his homework and taught him to beat James at chess -- almost. The same Remus who took his side when the others ganged up on him, and who had once saved him from a giant spider in the Forbidden Forest.

"All right," he croaked. "He's a -- a werewolf. And I won't say anything."

"You swear it?" demanded James ruthlessly, prodding him in the chest with his wand. "On your father's grave?"

"I -- I swear!" squeaked Peter.

The wand was withdrawn, and a moment later, Sirius's tight grip on his arms relaxed.

Peter sat up, rubbing his arms. "But if he eats Constantine, I'm allowed to say 'I told you so'," he said irritably. "You promise he's not going to kill me in my sleep?"

"Wouldn't be such a loss," muttered Sirius, giving him a look that made Peter move quickly out of his reach.

But James only said, "He hasn't yet, has he? We've been living together more than a year now."

Peter knew he would have to be satisfied with that, though he didn't think he could ever sleep soundly with a werewolf breathing down his neck.

James turned to Sirius. "So now what?" he asked.

"I don't know," admitted Sirius, anger fading from his eyes. "I guess we start looking for ways to help him."

By the scuffing, shuffling footfalls and the clearing of a throat, Remus knew that, whoever his visitor might be, it was not Madam Pomfrey. Reluctantly, he blinked open his grainy eyelids. It took him a moment to realise what he was seeing, and what it meant, and then his eyes flew wide as he stared up into the faces of all three of his roommates. Sirius grinned guiltily. James looked solemn. Peter stared at the floor.

Remus opened his mouth, but it had gone suddenly dry, and in any case, he could think of nothing to say. Heart hammering painfully against his aching ribs, fingers clenched in the rough woollen blanket, he waited for one of them to speak.

Four weeks ago, when he had awoken to find Sirius sleeping peacefully beside him, Remus had had a hard time believing that the conversation of the previous night had been real. His brain had been muddled with exhaustion. Surely he had misunderstood something or Sirius had, or it had been a dream after all. James couldn't really know, could he?

Remus had spent almost a month covertly observing the others in light of this revelation, looking for subtle clues in their attitudes towards him, and towards Dark creatures in general, trying to fathom the impossible idea that James and Sirius knew his secret -- had known it for ages -- and they did not care. He had spent many restless nights trying to puzzle it out, wanting to believe, but unwilling to put much weight on something that seemed so unlikely.

If he told James he knew -- if he told Peter the truth -- as Sirius had urged him to do, it would all come out, and he would figure out where the mistake had been made, or what the misunderstanding had been, and then they would hate him after all. They would shun him and shout his secret from the towers of the school, and Remus would be sent home, never to call himself "wizard" again. He couldn't face it. It was too much.

The tension and sleepless nights had only worsened with the approach of the October full moon. When Sirius had intercepted him on his way to the hospital wing the night before and pestered him again about when he was planning to tell the others, Remus had snapped, shouting at Sirius that if he was so keen, why didn't he just tell them himself? The last he had seen of his friend was an openmouthed look of shock as Remus had whirled away and stormed down the corridor. Was Sirius angry about that? Would he decide that being friends with someone as unstable as Remus was too much trouble after all?

Apparently Sirius had taken him at his word, and had told the others. Remus wished he could have put this moment off a little longer, but he had known for a month now that it was coming. The night Sirius had confessed that they knew, there had been a kind of safety in the quiet darkness. Now, in the bright morning light of the hospital wing, there was nowhere to hide.

It was James who spoke first.

"I just wanted to make sure you knew that it's all out in the open now," he said. "There's no more secrets between us."

Remus nodded slowly, licking dry lips, eyes riveted on James's face.

"This doesn't change anything," James told him. "Anyone who knows you can see you're a decent bloke." He poked Peter, who jumped.

"It doesn't m-matter what you are. We're friends," the smaller boy said very fast, voice unusually high, but his eyes did not meet Remus's. His face was very pale and he had a ruffled look about him. Remus suspected that his attendance and declaration had been coerced by the others. That didn't matter, though. It was still more acceptance that Remus had ever thought to hope for.

"We've all sworn an oath," said James. "Last night. No one will ever know your secret from us. The Mau -- Mor --" He glanced at Sirius.

"Marauders," Sirius hissed.

"The Marauders look out for each other and keep each other's secrets," James finished, looking at Remus expectantly.

A painful tightness seized the back of Remus's throat, and his breath came in short, whimpery gasps. He knew that if he tried to speak, his voice would wobble and crack, advertising how dangerously close he was to tears. He had friends. They knew, and they were still here, still reaching out. He did not want to cry in front of them. He swallowed hard, forcing down the feeling.

"You -- you'd better go," he said hoarsely. "Shouldn't be -- late for class."

"Yeah," said James. He rested a hand on Remus's shoulder, squeezing gently. "Get some rest. We'll have your notes for you tonight."

The hangings fluttered closed behind them, and Remus turned on his side, curling himself around the wonderful ache of it, and fighting hard against the tears.

At the doors to the hospital wing, Sirius balked.

"I'm staying," he said.

James rolled his eyes. "Of course you are."

"You'll get detention from McGonagall for skiving off," Peter reminded him.

But that didn't matter. "Take good notes for me," he told them by way of farewell, turning back down the ward.

Sirius approached the curtained bed nervously as the echoing footsteps of James and Peter faded away. When last he and Remus had spoken, Remus had lashed out at him, and Sirius was no longer certain he had meant it when he said to tell the others himself. His chest felt tight as he worried that Remus might be angry with him.

Pushing the curtains aside, he found his friend lying curled on his side, facing away from him.

"Remus?" he whispered, wondering if the other boy had already gone back to sleep.

There was no response but a slight shuddering of the hunched shoulders. Sirius edged around the bed. Remus's eyes were open, but he seemed unable to stop blinking. One look at the tense, aching expression on his pale face, though, told Sirius he was anything but angry.

"Please go away, Sirius." The voice was little more than a tight whisper.

Sirius pulled up the chair that stood beside the bed. "Not a chance, mate." He hesitated, watching as Remus fought back tears. "Is there -- anything I can do?"

"You're not my mum," Remus said thickly.

"Why?" Sirius asked. "What would she do?"

"M-make tea. Sing. Dad tells stories." Remus sighed wistfully.

Sirius glanced at a gently-steaming mug on the bedside cabinet. "Well, you've already got tea, and I can't sing for toffee --"

"Doesn't matter," Remus mumbled. "They're just -- there." His voice cracked on the final word and a few tears slid free to drip from the end of his nose.

Something uncoiled inside Sirius. "Hey, don't do that," he said softly.

And as if the weeping boy were Regulus, waking from one of his nightmares, Sirius crawled onto the bed beside him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. A helpless sob shook Remus's chest, and Sirius pulled him closer. He could feel the hot tears slipping down the neck of his robes -- could feel Remus's hands clutched in their folds, wadding the fabric -- but he didn't care. He felt strangely warm all over.

Before his Sorting, Sirius had known his purpose in life: he was the heir, duty-bound to uphold the honour of his family and his name. Since the moment the Sorting Hat had cried "GRYFFINDOR!", Sirius had been lost and drifting. He had made friends and he had learned to have fun and to rely on his wits rather than his status, but there had been an empty space inside him where his purpose used to be. Until now. Because Remus needed him. He was necessary.

A glow of determination suffused him. I'm going to help him, he thought. There must be all kinds of ways. And he could do it, too, because he was Sirius bloody Black, wasn't he? There was nothing he couldn't do if he put his mind to it and was willing to try hard enough, and he was willing.

Gradually, Remus's grip on the front of his robes relaxed and the sobs tapered off into shaking sighs.

Sirius ran a hand down the other boy's back. "Better now?"

"Y-yeah," sniffed Remus. "A little. Sorry. I just -- never thought I'd have friends."

"Charming bloke like you?" teased Sirius. "How could you not?"

Remus gave a damp chuckle. He raised an arm to wipe his streaming eyes and nose on a bandaged wrist, and the breath caught in Sirius's throat. He sat up suddenly.

"Shit, Remus! You're bleeding! Here, let me --"

He made a grab for Remus's arm, where the dark red stain had soaked through the bandage, but Remus jerked away.

"No! You can't!" His voice was tinged with sudden panic.

Sirius drew back, confused. "What? Why not?"

Remus looked away, curling himself instinctively around his wounded wrist. "You could be tainted," he mumbled. "My blood might get into your system."

Sirius's brow furrowed. "You mean I could become a werewolf just from touching your blood?"

"Not -- not exactly," said Remus. "But -- your moods might be affected by the phase of the moon, and -- you might start liking different foods, or develop a really strong sense of smell or something."


All his life, Sirius had been told he must safeguard the purity of his blood, but he had never thought it could be altered as easily as that. He could only imagine what his parents would say if he told them he had been contaminated by the blood of a werewolf, or how guilty Remus would feel if he managed to taint Sirius by accident. But how was Sirius supposed to help him if he couldn't even touch him? He stared at Remus's bowed head in frustration, weighing his options.

Coming to a decision, he reaching into the pocket of his robes, fishing out the object he always carried with him. Before Remus understood what was happening, Sirius had drawn the blade of the pocketknife across the palm of his left hand, opening a shallow cut, and in the same motion, grasped Remus by the red-bandaged wrist.

Brown eyes, wide with shock, flew up to meet unrepentant grey ones.

"Oops," said Sirius. "Too late now."

Chapter Text

"We did 'fun with colours' last year," said James. "Let's try something new."

"What about making them spill all their secrets?" suggested Sirius. "Not that I want to know what that lot get up to in private, but it could be embarrassing for them."

James shook his head. "I've looked up Veritaserum. It takes forever to make and some of the ingredients are restricted. Slughorn would have to get special permission from the Ministry and Dumbledore to even bring them into the school."

"Temporary ageing potion?" mused Sirius. "Make them all old and saggy for a couple of days?"

"I think we can rule out potions," said James regretfully. "The only way to dose all the Slytherins at once is through the kitchens. The house-elves aren't going to let something like that get by them twice."

"S'pose not." Sirius scowled. "What about you, Lupin? Any ideas?"

Remus sighed inwardly. He had been hoping that, if he kept his nose in his book and his mouth shut, his roommates would not try to include him in their latest attempt at becoming Slytherin targets number one and two. He wished James and Sirius would leave the other House alone, but he wasn't about to say so. His gratitude was still too raw.

"I just want to stay out of trouble," he said, not looking up from his Charms text.

"But you're a Marauder!" protested Sirius, bouncing knees-first onto Remus's bed. "You can't not help with at least planning the Second Great and Wonderful Official Marauders' Halloween Prank!"

Remus drew his feet up the bed, eyeing Sirius warily for signs of imminent pouncing. Ever since Sirius's mad actions the previous week in the hospital wing, Remus had been more than a little nervous of him.

"Dunno how I got to be a Marauder," he mumbled. "Marauding's not really my thing."

"Sure it is," said Sirius. "You just haven't had enough practise. Anyway, James and I say you're a Marauder, and that means you are, so you have to help."

"All right," he sighed. "If I have any brilliant ideas, I'll be sure to mention them. In the meantime, I have Charms to catch up on. I'll be in the library."

He snapped his book shut and hurried out of the room, leaving a dissappointed-looking Sirius behind him. Remus felt a little bit ashamed about running away, but for the past five days he had been having some very confused and complicated feelings regarding his friends, especially Sirius, and he needed breathing room to sort them out. That, and he really didn't want to know about whatever they were planning for the Slytherins.

In the Gryffindor common room, he found Lily sprawled across a big, squashy armchair beside the fire, immersed in her History of Magic text.

"Library?" he asked.

She sat up and began to gather her study supplies. "Noisy roommates?"


Lily rolled her eyes. "What are they up to now?"

"Nothing much," said Remus uncomfortably.

His conscience twinged at not telling her about his friends' plans to prank the Slytherins, but since he didn't know what those plans entailed, there wasn't much to tell. If he mentioned it, she would undoubtedly tell Snape, who would warn his Housemates. The Slytherins might even make a preemptive strike, and Remus wasn't sure they wouldn't include him on their list of targets. Anyway, he owed his friends for their astounding loyalty, and he didn't owe Snape a damn thing.

Lily hesitated at the crossroads between the library and the Refuge, glancing at Remus.

"Library," he said hastily. "There are some books I need."

It was only half a lie. Being around his roommates might not be conducive to sorting out his mental turmoil, but Snape would almost certainly be in their secret study room at this time of day, and he could be twice as bad as James and Sirius put together. Lily was doing a better job of reining in the worst of his nastiness this year, but he was no more cordial to Remus than he had ever been.

Remus hung his bag on a chair as he passed one of the library's large study tables, heading towards the shelves. The first three stacks on either side were the books most frequently referenced by students. Beyond them, there were a dozen tall, broad cases of volumes used mainly by OWL and NEWT level students, or by visiting scholars and researchers. These books were often older, often rarer, and many of them had gone untouched for years. Consequently, if one was looking for a quiet space in which to breathe, the dusty stacks at the back, next to the Restricted Section, were as good a place as any.

Remus leaned against the comforting, well-worn spines and closed his eyes. Avoiding Snape. Avoiding his roommates. And now he was avoiding Lily, too. He sighed. He wanted so badly to just accept the wonderful gift his friends had given him, but like everything else in his life, it was more complicated than that.

It had been five days since the morning in the hospital wing when Sirius had rashly sealed his declaration of friendship in his own blood, and Remus still could not believe he had done something so foolish. Ever since that morning, Remus had avoided being alone with the other boy as much as possible. Sirius had been hurt and disappointed by his reaction, he knew, but there was nothing Remus could do about that, anymore than he could change what had happened.

He had spent the intervening days watching Sirius closely for any overt signs of tainting -- changes in his appetite, senses, or behaviour -- but had so far spotted none. Every time he thought about what Sirius's family might do if they noticed any telltale changes in their son, Remus felt ill. It hadn't been his fault -- he had tried to stop Sirius, after all -- but the courts hardly ever ruled in a werewolf's favour, especially not against people like the Blacks.

Sirius, however, did not see any of that, because he was utterly, utterly mad. That was all there was to it. Mad and impulsive and infuriating and occasionally downright terrifying. Unfortunately for Remus, those were also the things that drew him to Sirius. His exuberant friend never held anything back, and Remus couldn't help envying him that.

James was mad, too, of course, but not in the same way as Sirius. He was pretending that nothing had changed. And really, nothing had, except that Peter knew now. Sirius and James both acted as if lycanthropy were nothing out of the ordinary, and young werewolves enroled at Hogwarts all the time. Perhaps that meant they didn't take his condition seriously. Maybe this was just another grand adventure to them.

The only sane one of the lot was Peter. If Remus had been avoiding Sirius, Peter had been avoiding Remus. While he didn't relish the idea that one of his friends was frightened of him, at least it was a reaction Remus understood. Peter wasn't nasty about it, and Remus didn't think he would tell, which was better than he had hoped for from any of them. He couldn't resent his timid friend's feelings.

Sirius, however, had decided to take umbrage against Peter on Remus's behalf, putting Remus in an awkward position for a day or two until James had put a stop to the barbed comments and jinxes Sirius flung in Peter's direction. After that, Sirius had taken to giving Peter the silent treatment, which meant Sirius had been partnering with Remus in their classes while Peter worked with James, who was at least mildly sympathetic to his misgivings.

Remus was grateful for the friendship of all three of them. But that did not mean he wanted to involve himself in their idiotic rivalry with the Slytherins.

"There you are."

Remus opened his eyes to see Sirius's impish grin peering around the corner of the stacks.

"Hey," he said, briefly mourning the loss of his quiet moment as the nervous feeling that he got every time Sirius was nearby returned.

Sirius sauntered over, hands in the pockets of his robes. "Evans said you weren't here. Lying bint," he said without heat, glancing at the shelf opposite Remus. "What're you looking for? Old Charms books? That's not a bad thought. Might find something we can use that everyone's forgotten." He pulled a book entitled A Charming History off the shelf and sat down on the floor, already turning pages.

Remus sighed.

It was only two days before Halloween by the time James and Sirius's nebulous plans for an assault on Slytherin House finally crystalised. They were brainstorming in their dormitory on Sunday afternoon, Sirius sprawled across the foot of James's bed, Peter digging through his trunk, trying to locate his camera, and Remus, as usual, reading on his own bed, trying to avoid becoming involved.

"We could try to capture something that lives in the forest, and release it in the dungeons," said James, idly making sparks of different colours with his wand and getting them to rotate around one another like a tiny solar system.

"What? One of those spider things?" Peter paused in his rummaging to shudder.

"Maybe not," James sighed.

"We could put it about that Snape's a vampire," suggested Sirius. "He looks enough like one."

"No," said Remus before he could stop himself.

The others looked at him, surprised.

"No Dark creatures," he pleaded.

Sirius frowned. "We wouldn't say anything about werewolves, mate. You know that."

But Remus shook his head. "It doesn't matter. When people get scared, they start looking for clues and seeing things around every corner. They could figure it out. I'd rather not have an angry mob after me."

"They'd have to get past me and James first," Sirius declared stoutly.

"Tosser." James shoved Sirius's arm with a foot. "It's OK, Remus. No Dark creatures. I promise."


Remus trusted James, for all he was mad. Sirius was volatile and Peter was easily intimidated, but James was all Gryffindor; his word of honour was a sacred bond. He would keep the other two in line.

"What about booby-trapping the dungeons?" said James, breaking the awkward lull in the conversation.

Peter was still digging haphazardly through his trunk, shoving robes and books out of the way, when one of the objects he had tossed aside hit the floor, and with an obscene sound, dissolved in a cloud of noxious green. He staggered back, gagging.

"Stink Pellet!" Sirius shouted the alarm.

"Windows!" gasped Remus.

Unfortunately, only two of the windows in the dormitory were designed to open, and neither of them very far. There was a brief scuffle as the four of them vied for access to a limited amount of damp autumn air, before realising it was no good and slamming the door behind them to collapse on the tower steps.

No sooner had they gulped down a lungful of relatively untainted air than Peter cried, "Constantine!" and rushed back into the room. He returned a moment later, a faintly greenish cast to his face, with his stricken Puffskein cradled in his hands. The little creature was so far gone that for once it did not seem to care about Remus's proximity. Manfully suppressing his own nausea, Remus attempted to feel grateful for small mercies.

"Slytherin's arse," James coughed, fanning himself. "I'd only just got the smell out of my things from last time."

"Yeah," growled Sirius, pinching his nose. "If I wanted to smell like a Slytherin, I'd ask to borrow Snivellus's robes."

There was a moment's silence in which Remus saw James and Sirius's eyes meet, their faces perfect mirrors of epiphany. Remus groaned and subsided against the stone wall, guessing what was coming next.

"Hey, Pete," said James slowly.

"Yeah?" Peter's attention was still focussed on his fainting pet.

"How many more of those things have you got?"

"Huh?" Peter glanced up, confused.

Sirius slapped him on the knee, forgetting, in his excitement, about giving Peter the cold shoulder. "Stink Pellets, Pete! How many?"

"Oh." Peter shrugged. "They come in boxes of twenty. So eighteen left, I guess."

"So that's one for each of the Slytherin dormitories, two for the common room, leaving two extra for Snape's room," said James counting off on his fingers.

Sirius snorted. "You think he'll notice?"

"You're forgetting," Remus pointed out. "You still have no way to get anything into Slytherin."

There was a moment's frowning silence before Peter said, "Well, they must have windows, too, right? I know they're in the dungeons, but --"

"Oh, sure." Sirius rolled his eyes. "We'll just say, 'Oi, you lot! Open up and stand back.'"

"No, he's right," said James, sitting up straighter. "Levitating them in through the windows could work."

Sirius looked unconvinced. "How?"

A wide grin spread across James's face. "It's like you said to Gandolfsson. We'll smash 'em."

Remus did not, in so many words, tell his roommates that they shouldn't fill the Slytherin dormitories with Stink Pellets, but he did tell them all the reasons why it wouldn't work, and why it was a terrible idea.

"How many Slytherins are there, and how many hexes do you think they know?" he muttered to Sirius as they negotiated the crowded corridors towards Defence Against the Dark Arts on Halloween morning. "The minute you break the windows, every wand in that place is going to be pointed at you."

Sirius just grinned. "We've been over all that. It'll be dark. We'll be wearing black robes. James will chuck the Stink Pellets in, and I'll handle the Shield charms. They won't be able to come 'round and catch us because we'll seal them in right after curfew. By the time they get out, we'll be back in Gryffindor, safe and sound. Stop worrying, Moony."

"Could you at least not call me that in public?" Remus made a face.

"You know," said Sirius, ignoring him, "if you really cared about us, you'd come along and help out with the Shield charms." He fluttered his eyelashes absurdly.

Remus shook his head. "You're going to get caught and you're going to get detention. You don't think Slughorn has a way of knowing if the Slytherins are under attack?"

It was Sirius's turn to make a face. "You're as bad as Pete."

Remus tried not to let the barb get to him. He knew Sirius didn't mean it. Not really. Having supplied both the Stink Pellets and the planned method of delivery, Peter was back in favour. He had balked, though, at making any further contribution to the prank that might land him in trouble with McGonagall. But Peter wasn't a werewolf, and his place at Hogwarts wasn't dependent on Dumbledore's goodwill.

As they entered the Defence classroom, Remus let the matter drop, and moved away to sit near Lily. If Sirius was going to be pigheaded, there was nothing Remus could do about it, and no good could come of whispered conversations under Gandolfsson's nose. The wizened professor was already flicking his eyes suspiciously over the class.

"Concealment," the Defence master began, once everyone was sitting at attention. "There are many methods of hiding objects and people one does not wish to be found. You lot are too inept to be able to do it effectively yet, and I'm not going to waste my time trying to teach you. However, it is possible that one or two of you may not be too stupid to detect magical concealment."

His piercing eyes rested on Remus as he said this, and the boy gripped his wand beneath the desk, holding his breath, in case a hex was coming. When Gandolfsson's carpet slid away from him, he relaxed ever so slightly.

"In this classroom," Gandolfsson continued, "there are thirty hidden items. You have until the end of the class period to locate and collect them. You may begin now."

Remus stood up and glanced around. His fellow students were doing the same, or else were wandering blindly about the classroom, their hands in front of them, grasping at the air.

When a small explosion knocked Madeleine Yaxley off her feet, Gandolfsson crowed, "You can't just blunder into them; you have to find them."

Right, thought Remus irritably. How do you find something you can't see? He narrowed his eyes, turning his head slowly, and tried to relax his mind to sense the Concealment charms. He had noticed he could sometimes sense nearby magic when he was meditating.

There. A slight shimmer at the edge of his mind. Remus took a step towards it and tried to "see" it again. Bending down, he closed his fingers around the place where he thought the item should be. When he opened his hand, a piece of yellow chalk lay on his palm.

"Well done Lupin," Gandolfsson gave him a curt nod. "Keep at it."

Remus set the chalk on his desk and turned slowly, feeling for the next object. Gandolfsson's methods were a source of ever-increasing frustration to him. He understood that the Defence master used doubt and insults to urge his students towards excellence, but Remus could not help thinking that a real teacher would have explained the exercise in more detail -- might have described how to "look" for the items and sense the spells surrounding them -- if he hoped for his students to show much success.

He was just reaching for his next identified target, when an explosion stung his hand and sent him tumbling into the desk behind him.

James helped him to his feet. "You OK, mate?"

"Yeah." Remus shook his head, confused. "I guess I must have slipped."

It was only after the second near miss, when he glanced up in time to catch Snape smirking at him, that Remus realised what had happened. The Slytherin had amasses a tidy pile of found items on his desk -- two books, a slipper, a mug, and a stone -- and having mastered the exercise, had apparently decided to spend the rest of the class antagonising his least-favourite Gryffindor.

Remus turned away, determined to ignore the other boy. But as he zeroed in on his next objective, his eyes flicked up to find Snape grinning nastily at him, wand hand concealed in the folds of his robes.

"Severus --" he began.

"Focus, Lupin!" Gandolfsson shouted, though Remus did not see how the professor could have missed Snape's goading when nothing else seemed to get past him. "An Auror can't afford to get distracted."

Snape smirked, and Remus gritted his teeth and turned away, trying to focus his mind on the exercise. But by the end of the class, he had only managed to collect three objects that Snape had not exploded out from under him. Besides the piece of chalk, he had a stale bread roll and a deck of playing cards to show for his trouble. Still, that was better than most of his classmates had managed. Only Snape had accomplished more, and some had not found anything at all. One of these was Peter, who was nursing a burnt hand, which Remus suspected was also Snape's doing.

"Hogwarts has many secrets," Gandolfsson said before dismissing them. "Use what you learned today to try to identify at least one hidden object or location in the school. You will write up your findings, along with thirteen inches on methods of magical concealment, for next Tuesday's class."

Remus was the last to deposit his found items on the Defence master's desk.

"You should've hexed him," Gandolfsson growled. "You're as bad as the girls, always using a Shield charm or turning the other cheek. It won't make him like you any better, Lupin. You'll never be an Auror if you don't defend yourself. You want your enemies to think twice about crossing you."

"Yes, Sir," said Remus putting on his blankest face and ruthlessly shoving down any wayward feelings. "Why do you let him get away with it?"

Gandolfsson searched his face, and Remus stared blandly back at him. At last, the man nodded. "I watch him. I watch all of them. They are what they are. And in a few years, when they're out and about in the world, I'll know which ones to look out for, and some of what they're capable of. Meanwhile, dealing with them is good practise for the rest of you. Next time, you'll hex him. Am I understood?"

"Yes, Sir," Remus said again, imagining how Snape might choose to retaliate if hexed, or what Lily would have to say about it.

He left the classroom with few charitable feelings towards either the Slytherins or the Defence master.

The Halloween feast was marvelous, and the anticipation of the adventure to come only added to James's enjoyment. He kept catching Sirius's eye across the table, and then they would both have to look away quickly or stuff something into their mouths to hide their grins. It wouldn't do for anyone to get suspicious.

Peter was grinning, too, but his own smile had a nervous quality to it, which James thought was silly, considering Peter wouldn't actually be coming with them. Remus, seated next to Sirius, kept his eyes on his food, his face expressionless. He had given up trying to talk them out of their plans, which was all to the good so far as James was concerned. Remus was a good bloke, but sometimes he was a bit of a McGonagall when it came to fun.

"Well?" said James in an undertone, when at last the plates had vanished and the chattering students began to move towards the doors of the Great Hall.

Sirius grinned. "Let's do this."

Peter wished them luck, and Remus did, too, albeit reluctantly. "If you don't get expelled, we'll see you at the Prewetts' party in the common room."

James clapped him on the shoulder. "Save us some pumpkin juice."

He and Sirius joined a passing group of Hufflepuffs in the entrance hall, and from there, slipped into a broom cupboard partially concealed by the main staircase. Then there was nothing for them to do but wait.

There were only two hours between the end of the feast and NEWT student curfew, but two hours was a very long time when one was twelve and stuck in a dark, stuffy cupboard with nothing to do.

"We need to find another way in and out of the school," James muttered as the sound of milling students outside the door faded away. "Using the entrance hall all the time is too risky."

"The Prewetts must know a way," said Sirius, trying to get comfortable between a bucket and several pots of cleaning potions. "They've always got stuff from Hogsmeade."

"Yeah." James sat, resting his back against the door. "They said they'd teach us everything they know about the school before they leave."

"Seems like they've forgotten about us since last Easter," said Sirius. "Now they're all about the Defence club."

"Which they won't even let us join," James grumbled. "I thought they wanted us to be good at that stuff."

"If Dumbledore thought it was important, he'd've hired a decent teacher," Sirius complained. "All Gandolfsson ever does is tell us we're rubbish and make fun of us when we get it wrong. I can't even see what he's on about, half the time."

"Yeah," James agreed, lighting his wand to peer at his watch.

Only twenty minutes had elapsed, and James was becoming increasingly aware of the eighteen Stink Pellets in their pockets in the confined space of the broom cupboard.

Sirius had noticed it, too, and wrinkled his nose. "How much longer, mate?"

James made a face. "Ages."

"Can't we just wait outside?" Sirius asked.

"No," said James. "We have to wait for curfew and then seal the Slytherins in. We can't be going in and out the main doors a hundred times."

They waited for another uncomfortable three-quarters of an hour before Sirius said, "Who studies on Halloween, anyway? You know they're all going to be celebrating in their common room, same as Gryffindor. Let's just get it over with."

James relented. The stench emanating from their pockets was getting to be overwhelming, and he was beginning to worry that if they waited another hour, they would end up asphyxiating themselves. He eased open the cupboard door and peered around the dark and silent entrance hall.

"OK," he whispered to Sirius. "Pringle should be patrolling the seventh floor right now, but Peeves could be anywhere. Let's go."

They kicked off their shoes, which made too much noise on the stone floor, and carried them across the entrance hall and down the steps leading to the Slytherin dungeons.

If the Prewetts had not told them how to find Slytherin House the previous year, they would never have been able to locate it on their own. The entrance looked like nothing more than a blank stretch of stone wall.

"Ready?" whispered James as they raised their wands.

Sirius nodded.

"One -- two -- three -- Colloportus!" they finished in unison.

There was a squelching sound as the door sealed itself, which they hoped could not be heard inside the Slytherin common room, and they turned and hurried back the way they had come. Moments later, they were crossing the entrance hall again and pushing open the heavy oak doors out of the castle.

It was colder outside than it had been in the dungeons, and James shivered. Wearing cloaks to supper would have looked suspicious. Scarves were often worn in the colder months as a mark of House pride, but James had thought it better not to wear any bright colours or identifying markers. They didn't dare light their wands, which might be seen from the castle windows, but the low-hanging half-moon was enough to see by as they crept around the dark bulk of the school.

At the back side of the castle, the lake came up to lap against the walls. Standing at the edge of the water, James and Sirius emptied their pockets and piled the Stink Pellets between them, before raising their wands once more.


With a crash, all the windows within reach of their combined spell shattered, raining glass down into the lake. The two boys sprang into position.

"Wingardium Leviosa," said James, ushering up the first Stink Pellet, and shooing it towards the open windows.

In the dark, not knowing which windows were Slytherin and which weren't, he knew there was no chance of distributing the pellets as they had originally hoped. The only thing to do was fling the things in as quickly as possible and hope for the best.

"What in Merlin's name is going on out there?" cried a voice.

Too late, James recognised it, and realised that the last Stink Pellet he had launched had sailed straight through the window out of which Professor Slughorn and several students were now leaning, wands drawn.

"Shields, Black!" James hissed, cursing under his breath. Some of the faces surrounding Slughorn belonged to Slytherins.

"They've shattered the windows, Professor!" someone cried. "The dormitories will flood!"

James's eyes dropped to where the lake met the stone wall of the castle, and realised with horror that air was bubbling up from somewhere below the surface. The dungeon dormitories, where, thanks to them, the Slytherins were sealed in.

"I see them!" shouted a voice.

A volley of hexes followed. James and Sirius threw up Shield charm after Shield charm, but they were outmatched and outnumbered. A Noodle-Arms jinx hit Sirius in the chest, and his arms dropped to his sides, useless.

"C'mon," said James, yanking the back of his friend's robes. "We have to get out of here!"

Abandoning their remaining pile of Stink Pellets, they turned tail and ran.

The Prewetts knew how to throw a party. The tables of the Gryffindor common room were covered in treats and beverages that Gideon and Fabian had purchased in Hogsmeade the previous weekend, and there was even a bottle of firewhiskey somewhere, though the twins would not let anyone below fifth year touch it.

Peter tried to enjoy himself, but he couldn't. For one thing, his burnt hand was still hurting him; for another, he was nervous on account of James and Sirius, who had not returned yet; and for a third, there was a werewolf looking at him. Taking a swallow of butterbeer, he tried to put everything else out of his mind.

"Where are the dynamic duo?" asked Fabian, slapping him on the back and making him sputter and cough.

"Dunno," Remus answered for him, blank-faced. "They were here a minute ago. Maybe they went up to the dormitory."

Gideon gave him a curious look. "Were they? I don't think I've seen them since the feast."

Remus shrugged.

The interrogation was cut short when the twins had to go forcibly reclaim the firewhiskey bottle from Dorian Gaveston, a third year, who had become very giggly and was sitting on the lap of his best friend, Stubby Boardman. Peter breathed a sigh of relief, until Remus moved into the vacant seat beside him.

"How's your hand, Pete?" he asked in an undertone. "Still hurting?"

"A little," Peter admitted, leaning away ever so slightly from the other boy.

Remus looked sympathetic. "D'you want to go see Pomfrey? She's probably got something to put on it."

"It's OK," mumbled Peter.

"Let me see."

Remus reached for his hand. Peter flinched away, and Remus drew back.

"I won't hurt you," he said softly. "I promise."

Peter didn't think he was talking about his burn. Reluctantly, he uncurled his fingers.

Remus sucked in a breath, cradling Peter's hand gently in his own. The palm was a shiny, angry red, with a large blister running across the heel of his hand.

"You should definitely let Pomfrey have a look at this," said Remus. "You won't be able to use a wand for a week, otherwise."

"It's not so bad." Peter shifted uncomfortably. "I don't want to go see the matron."

Remus's brown eyes were puzzled. "Why not?"

Peter hesitated. James and Sirius would laugh at him if they knew. But Remus never laughed at anyone. "Becauseitsspooky," he said in a rush.

"What's spooky?"

"The castle. At night." He could feel his ears and his nose turning pink.

Remus did not laugh, or even smile. "What if I went with you?"

Peter bit his lip. Being alone in the castle at night was spooky, but being alone with a werewolf -- He weighed his options. His hand was hurting him quite a lot, and Remus was probably right about not being able to use a wand. His performance in class was poor enough as it was. Reluctantly, he nodded.

"I'm taking Pete to see Madam Pomfrey," Remus told Fabian.

The Head Boy waved them off. "I'll check in at the hospital wing when I do my rounds in a bit. If you're still there, I'll walk you back."

Their footsteps echoed in the dark stone corridors, and Peter shivered, trying not to walk too close to Remus.

"Was it Snape?" Remus asked, making him jump.

"Was what Snape?" Peter glanced around nervously, but the greasy-haired Slytherin was nowhere in sight.

"He was blowing things up in Defence class," said Remus. "He did a bunch of mine before I could get to them. I thought maybe he did the one that burnt you, too."

"Dunno," said Peter. "Maybe. Probably. He hates me."

Remus snorted. "Not as much as he hates me."

"But he doesn't even know --" Peter bit his tongue sharply.

"No," said Remus. "He doesn't. And I hope to God he never finds out. He'd make my life a living hell if he knew. No, he hates me because I'm friends with Lily."

"Oh. She's -- nice," said Peter.

"Yeah, she is."

Peter nodded. "She's really good at Potions and Charms and Defence, isn't she? I don't get why Gandolfsson thinks girls are rubbish at magic."

"I'm not so sure he does think that," said Remus as they turned to take a shortcut behind a dusty tapestry and down a rickety wooden staircase.

Peter was confused. "But -- he's always having a go at them."

"He's always having a go at everyone," Remus shrugged. "I think he thinks it will make us try harder. Prove him wrong, you know?"

"Oh," said Peter. "But he just makes me think I'm rubbish at Defence and I'm probably going to die."

Remus shot him a sympathetic look. "That's because he's not a very good teacher. You're not going to die, Pete."

The confident tone of Remus's voice made Peter feel a little better. "You're really good at Defence," he said shyly.

"Cheers." Remus gave him a rare smile. "If you want, I can show you how to do some of the stuff Gandolfsson's meant to be teaching us."

"Yeah," said Peter. "That'd be cool."

The hospital wing was dark and empty when they reached it, but a knock at the office door brought the matron out as if she had been waiting for them to arrive.

"Are you well, Mr Lupin? What seems to be the trouble?" Madam Pomfrey asked, all business.

Remus nudged Peter, and he held out his hand for her to inspect. She tutted and sat him down on a stool under a warm, yellow light, before fetching a jar of soothing ointment.

"This may sting a bit," she warned before spreading the pink cream over his palm.

It did, but not as badly as the burn itself, and he thanked her as she wound a thick, soft bandage around his hand.

"You just sit tight here for a minute," she told him. "I'll put a bit of the ointment in a smaller jar to take with you, in case you want more of it later."

When the matron had disappeared into her office, Peter looked up to see Remus watching him, and quickly dropped his eyes back to his bandaged hand.

The other boy cleared his throat. "Are we OK?" he asked, voice quiet.

"I guess so," Peter said uncertainly, not looking up.

"It's all right," said Remus. "I get it. Really."

"I'm sorry," Peter mumbled. "James and Sirius are --"

"James and Sirius are nutters," Remus said, a hint of a smile in his voice. "You're the sanest one of the lot."

Peter glanced up, smiling shyly. "Yeah, I guess so. They really like you, though. They wouldn't go after the Slytherins like that on my account."

"Like what?" Remus's brow furrowed.

Peter was surprised. "Like tonight. Sirius is always going on about the way Snape treats you, and after what Lestrange said in Defence the other week --"

He broke off as Madam Pomfrey returned with a much smaller stone jar and a handful of extra bandages. The familiar blank expression had fallen over Remus's face. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking.

"Put some more of the ointment on in the morning," the matron instructed, "and wrap it in a fresh bandage. Try not to do too much with that hand tomorrow. I've written you an excuse for your classes. It should be good as new by the next day."

Peter thanked her again, and she bade the two of them good night. At the doors to the hospital wing, Remus hesitated, then turned right instead of left.

"What --?" Peter started.

"C'mon," Remus said. "We're going to rescue those idiots."

At the top of the main staircase, he paused.

"I'm going to try something," he told Peter. "Hold still."

Peter shifted nervously from foot to foot as Remus waved his wand over both of them. "Disillusio." Something cold trickled down Peter's neck, and he shivered.

"What's that do?" he asked.

Remus was looking at him critically. "Nothing, apparently. You've just gone sort of fuzzy at the edges. It works better when Madam Pomfrey does it." He sighed. "We'll just have to be careful."

Peter nodded. "What're we going to do?"

Remus glanced around, peering over the bannister to the darkened entrance hall below. "I'm going to create a diversion so they can get back into the school without being seen. You're going to go up to the landing and look out the window directly over the main doors to the castle. When you see them coming, signal me. Got it?"

Nodding again, Peter scrambled back up the stairs the way they had come, heart pounding with excitement, and wedged himself onto the ledge of the narrow window, squinting down into the darkness of the grounds below. Every now and then, he glanced back to where Remus crouched at the turn of the staircase, wand out, a look of calculation on his face. Then he tensed.

A moment later, Peter heard it, too. Shouts drifting up from the dungeon staircase, and a splashing sound. In another moment, there would be people coming up into the entrance hall.

"That'll have to do," he heard Remus mutter, pointing his wand. "Engorgio." A suit of armor positioned near the top of the dungeon steps gave a metallic screech and loomed suddenly huge. Then -- "Confringo!" -- it exploded, enormous steel plates crashing and clattering and finally splashing down the stone steps, to the audible consternation of those below.

"Leg it, Pete!" Remus grabbed him by the sleeve as he passed, yanking him into a stumbling run.

They doubled back past the hospital wing before they slowed, panting for breath, Peter pressing his uninjured hand against a stitch in his side.

"Pringle!" Peter squeaked as the caretaker loomed out of a doorway fifty metres ahead of them.

"Keep walking," Remus muttered. "Act normal."

Pringle's eyes were narrowed with suspicion as he bore down upon them. "Well?" he barked. "What do you have to say for yourselves?"

Remus's blank mask was back in place. "We've just been to see Madam Pomfrey. Peter hurt his hand."

Peter held out his bandaged hand for inspection, doing his best to maintain an expression of fearful, wide-eyed innocence.

The caretaker sniffed at the bandage and grunted. "And the matron'll vouch for you, will she?"

"You can take us to her, if you like, Sir," Remus said blandly.

Pringle looked as if he was still trying to decide whether or not to call their bluff when a set of footsteps echoed up the stairs.

"There you lads are," said Fabian cheerfully. "Evening, Mr Pringle. Did Pomfrey patch you up, then, Pettigrew?"

Peter nodded dumbly, showing his hand again.

"Good, good," said the Head Boy. "Did you need these boys for something, Sir? Only there's a spot of bother in the dungeons. Professor Slughorn asked me to fetch you."

Pringle grunted and turned away. Peter let out a sigh of relief.

"You lads run along back to Gryffindor," said Fabian, giving them a jaunty wave. "I'll see you later. Mr Pringle, I think we might need Professor Flitwick as well. We'll be wanting some powerful Sealing and Drying charms."

The caretaker and the tall, sandy-haired boy headed off in the direction of Ravenclaw Tower, and Peter and Remus turned back towards Gryffindor. At the portrait of the Fat Lady, they met a panting and wild-eyed James and Sirius. Sirius's arms hung limply at his sides.

"What're you two doing out?" gasped James.

"Saving your sorry skins," Remus told him. "You can thank us by telling us why the dungeons are flooded."

Chapter Text

It was three days before the dungeons were dry enough for the Slytherins to move back into them, but a fetid, swampy odour still lingered, wafting up the steps into the entrance hall. Fortunately, no one had drowned, but several students checked into the hospital wing with chills and fevers earned during the long minutes it had taken to unstick the door of the Slytherin common room and evacuate everyone to higher ground.

Everyone was furious. The professors. Mr Pringle. Madam Pomfrey. Even amiable Headmaster Dumbledore had a firm set to his mouth when he announced over breakfast the morning after Halloween that anyone with information regarding the flooding of the dungeons should report to their Head of House. Sirius had even heard a rumour that Professor Slughorn had tried to enlist the help of the Defence master in tracking down the culprits, but that Professor Gandolfsson had flatly refused, saying that his business was catching Dark wizards, and he wasn't going to waste his time on pipsqueaks and hooligans.

James was keeping a low profile. Peter wore a perpetually-terrified expression, as if Professor McGonagall might leap out at any moment and collar them. Remus was being unusually quiet, even for Remus. Sirius was fairly confident that they wouldn't be expelled if they were found out, though they might end up serving detention until they sat their NEWTs.

"If they nick us, we'll swear you and Pete had nothing to do with it," he promised.

It was only safe to discuss the events of Halloween night in hushed voices in the privacy of their own dormitory. Suspicion had immediately fallen upon Gryffindor House, due to their age-old rivalry with Slytherin, but so far, no one had been able to prove anything, or seemed to think that students as young as second year might be involved.

"Mm," said Remus, not looking up from his Astronomy calculations.

"You know we didn't do it on purpose."

Remus gave him a stony look. "Well done. You've hit on the only reason why I'm still speaking to you. D'you know I had to lie to Lily when she asked if you had anything to do with it?"

Sirius sighed theatrically and flopped back onto his bed. They had managed to annoy the Slytherins, and they hadn't been caught, and yet somehow the prank still felt like a failure.

"We just need to work on the planning side of things," said James. "If Lupin had helped out a bit more, the Slytherins might've stayed warm and dry and just a bit smellier than usual."

"Oh, so now it's my fault you almost drowned the Slytherins?" Remus raised his eyebrows.

James shrugged. "You were the one telling us all the reasons why it wouldn't work. Maybe if you'd done a little re-con with us --" he said, using a favourite term of the Prewetts', "-- you'd have spotted the flaw in our otherwise brilliant plan."

"See, Moony? We need you." Sirius threw a pillow at him, which Remus deftly deflected. "You can be 'planning' -- you and Pete," he added, to be fair, since Peter seemed to have mostly got over his reservations about Remus, "and James and I will be 'execution'."

"I don't mind helping with planning," Peter said. "It's just getting caught and detention I'm not keen on."

Remus contemplated Peter's eager face, and sighed. "Fine. If it'll keep you lot from getting expelled or losing so many House points, I'll do what I can."

But the fallout from the Halloween prank had cast a pall over the beginning of November which that one small victory did little to alleviate.

The Saturday marking the first Quidditch match of the year dawned wet and windy, with sheets of near-freezing rain washing down from a lead-grey sky. Peter took one look at the enchanted ceiling of the Great Hall and quickly agreed to skip seeing Gryffindor play Hufflepuff in favour of studying for Defence Against the Dark Arts with Remus. The two of them left the hall together after a quick breakfast.

As Sirius and James finished their own meal, a few post owls straggled in, soggy and ruffled from the weather. Not unexpectedly, one of them was for James, who had owls from home at least twice a week. More surprising was the annoyed-looking grey bird that alighted next to Sirius's plate: his parents' owl, Athenasius. It glared at him disdainfully as he detached the scroll from its leg and unrolled the parchment.


Father found the last Letter you sent. He and Mother are angery that I have been writting to you. They said I coud write you this one Time to tell you some Things but this is the Last time.

First I am to tell you you have to come Home for the Crismas Holidays. Cousin Bellatrix is having a Party and Mother and Father want you there.

Second I am to say that Mother and Father think you are letting your Frends influents you to much. They do not care about your future Prospects and will only leed you Astray. Mother and Father say that you are yung and do not understand how the World works yet. You must trust that they have your best intrests in Mind. Some day you will thank them.

Your Brother,

A hastily-scrawled postscript followed the body of the letter.

P.S., Sorry. I no you like your Frends. I had to say those Things. Mother red it befor she let me send it. Tell Jamse and Peter I said Hello. I miss you. I wish you coud of been here for my Birthday. See you at Crismas.

Sirius scowled, shooing the owl away and glancing sidelong at James, ready to deflect any questions. But his best friend was still staring at his own short letter, a troubled expression on his face.

"Is everything OK?" Sirius asked.

James looked surprised to find that Sirius was still there. He shook his head. "It's from Mum. Dad's in hospital."

"What?" The thought of something bad happening to either of James's parents made Sirius's belly squirm. "What happened? Is he going to be all right?"

Wordless, James handed the letter to Sirius, who almost tore the parchment in his haste to read it.

Dear Jamie,

I just wanted to make sure you knew before you heard anything from anyone else that your father is going to be fine. Something happened at work last night, and he's being treated at St Mungo's. I'm here with him. The healers say he should be able to go home in a day or two. I probably shouldn't say any more than that here. Your father will write to you when he's able so that you will know he's well. Give our love to your friends, and don't worry.


Sirius stared at the letter, remembering the bright smile and warm embrace with which Mrs Potter always greeted her husband when he came home. He looked up to see his friend sitting silently, shoulders hunched, and did not know what to say to him. Feelings weren't something he and James talked about much; Remus was better at that sort of thing. Sirius's stomach churned with worry for the family who had taken him in, but he knew James must be feeling at least ten times worse.

"Are you OK, mate?" he asked quietly.

James stood abruptly, plucking the parchment scroll from Sirius's hands and stuffing it into his pocket. "Yeah. Fine." He cleared his throat. "I'm -- just going to go write them back."

Sirius glanced up at the ceiling and its reflection of the driving sleet that battered the castle's walls and windows. "You'll never get an owl out in this," he said. "Let's just go down to the Quidditch. Half the school will be there, even in this weather. We can ask if anyone's seen today's Prophet. If something big happened, it'll be in there, yeah? We can write back once the weather lets up."

James hesitated a moment, then nodded reluctantly.

They made their way down to the Quidditch pitch, bundled in their winter cloaks, wind tugging at the red-and-gold scarves wrapped around their necks and ears. The cloaks were mostly waterproof or they would have been soaked to the skin in minutes. Fortunately, the Gryffindor stands stood with their backs to the wind, providing some protection, but sneaky gusts still found their way down necks and up cuffs.

The match started, but James refused to settle. "You can stay here and watch," he told Sirius. "I'm going to ask around."

But Sirius was just as anxious to find out what Mrs Potter had been unable to say in her letter, and followed his friend silently from one cloaked and hooded spectator to the next, as James asked if anyone had heard any news that day. None of the Gryffindors seemed to know anything, apart from a girl who had overheard some Ravenclaws discussing an attack of some sort, but she had no details. No one, it seemed, took the Daily Prophet.

"What do you want to do, mate?" Sirius asked, as they stood shivering at the corner of the stands.


They watched the match desultorily for a moment as Hufflepuff scored a goal. The players were so bundled up against the weather that it was nearly impossible to tell who was who, apart from the colours of their robes. Sirius had never seen James so disinterested in Quidditch, especially when Gryffindor were playing.

"It sounds like the Ravenclaws might know something. That swotty bunch are bound to take the paper, aren't they?"

James shrugged. "Yeah, OK."

They made their way down the steps and through the covered walkway to a staircase marked with a blue-and-bronze banner. The presence of the two young Gryffindors in the Ravenclaw stands was largely ignored, apart from a few curious glances. The first few people they asked shook their heads, but finally they were pointed towards a fifth year girl named Septima Vector, seated near the top of the stands.

"Someone said you get the Prophet," said James, not bothering to introduce himself.

"What about it?" replied Vector warily.

"Was there anything in today's about an attack on some Aurors?"

The girl's expression melted into sympathy at the desperate look on James's face, and she drew a much-folded sheaf of newsprint from inside her robes. "I brought it down to finish, but it's too wet to read. You can have it, if it's important. I can always borrow someone else's later."

"Thanks," said James, snatching the paper from the girl's hand.

He immediately unfolded it and sat down, eyes darting over the words as the figures in the moving pictures scurried to avoid the spatter of raindrops. Sirius sat close beside him, leaning over his shoulder, searching for the name "Potter". Wind rattled the pages and the soaking rain caused the print to bleed through from the other side, making reading difficult. The name wasn't there, but the story was, about halfway down the front page.

Auror Killed in Raid Gone Wrong
A senior member of the Auror Department is in hospital, and a second Auror is dead, following a raid on a Yorkshire home Friday night.

A statement released by the Department confirms that the Aurors were following up on an anonymous tip concerning the Easter Murders earlier this year. The home was owned by a Muggle family who were reported missing last month. No suspects were apprehended in the course of the raid.

As of this printing, no further details are available. The Department is withholding the names of the Aurors involved until their families can be notified.

"Well, that doesn't tell us anything," complained Sirius.

James did not reply, but only sat with his head bowed, eyes closed. Something that looked suspiciously like a tear leaked down one cheek.

"Hey," said Sirius softly, scooting closer. "It's OK. Your mum said your dad will be fine, didn't she?"

James shook his head, scrubbing the sleeve of his cloak over his face. "It's not just Dad, though, is it? Ambrose is dead."

"Who?" asked Sirius, confused. He glanced back at the sodden pages of the paper, but saw no mention of anyone named Ambrose.

"Dad's partner, Ambrose Brown. They've worked together as long as I can remember. Dad trained him. They're really close." James's lip trembled, and he bit down on it. "Oh," said Sirius, at a loss. "D'you want to go back up to the castle?"

James shook his head. "Let's just watch the match."

Sirius had a hard time focusing on the action, knowing his best friend was upset. James did not seem to care much about what was happening above the pitch either. When Gryffindor's Captain, Gertrude Brown, fumbled an easy catch from fellow Chaser Columbanus Grey, James said nothing. He barely seemed to notice the two goals their House managed to score. And when Hufflepuff's Seeker, Amos Diggory, easily outmatched Matilda Hathersage to catch the Snitch, James only sighed.

The Ravenclaws began to leave the stands, but James remained slumped in his seat, staring into the distance. Sirius waited in silence, watching as the players returned to the ground and dismounted their brooms. The Gryffindor team shook hands with the Hufflepuffs, formally congratulating them on their win before heading to the changing rooms. The Gryffindor Captain looked as if she was crying.

"Typical girl," commented Sirius, hoping to distract his friend from his sombre thoughts. "So what if we lost? It's only the first match of the year."

"Yeah," James said, eyes following the players as they disappeared into their changing rooms, Gryffindor's Captain leaning on the consoling arm of the Keeper, Florence O'Neill. Abruptly, he stood. Sirius hurried to follow him, eager to get back to their dormitory and change into warm, dry clothes. But at the exit from the pitch, James stopped to lean against the wall.

"What're we doing?" asked Sirius, pushing damp, windblown hair out of his eyes.

"There's something I need to do." James looked uncomfortable. "You don't have to wait. I'll see you back at the room."

Sirius was not about to leave his best friend on his own in his hour of need. It was a mark of his particular fondness for James and his family that he did not complain once about how cold and wet and miserable he was, but merely stood by the other boy, waiting in silence for as long as James felt the need to do so.

The Hufflepuff team reappeared first and headed up to the castle, still in high spirits over their win. They gave the two young Gryffindors a curious glance in passing, but James ignored them, and Sirius followed his lead. The Gryffindor players took longer to emerge, and when they did, it was as a tightly-huddled and much-subdued pack, with their Captain at its centre.

James pushed away from the wall and fell into step beside them. "Brown?" he said.

The Captain turned. Her eyes were red and there was a forlorn set to her mouth. "Oh. Hey, Potter. Did you want something?"

"You're related to him, aren't you?" James stuffed his hands into the pockets of his cloak, looking uncomfortable. "To Ambrose Brown?"

Tears welled up in the girl's dark eyes and she bowed her head. "He's -- he was my cousin," she said softly.

"I'm sorry," said James. "I just wanted to say -- he was a really good bloke. My family really -- If there's anything I can do --"

She gave him a wobbly smile. "Thanks, Potter. He always had good things to say about your dad. Is he OK?"

"Mum says he will be."

"I'm glad to hear it," Brown said sincerely.

Sirius, following silently, experienced an odd sense of disorientation. He had always supposed that the line between boy and man was something that one crossed when one turned seventeen, or perhaps when one left school. But without any warning, his best friend seemed to have stepped over it, at least for the moment. The strain of grief made James look older, and he seemed taller than Sirius remembered. A vast chasm had opened between them which Sirius had no idea how to cross, and he felt suddenly very young, very lonely, and very much left behind.

"Gertie told us about what happened," said a voice at his elbow, nudging him out of his thoughts.

He glanced sideways at the concerned face of Matilda Hathersage, and gave a non-committal shrug.

"Could you -- I mean, if you don't think he'd mind -- just tell him I hope his dad is better soon?" The girl blushed and looked down at her feet.

"Sure," he said. And he supposed he would, too, if he remembered later.

He and James split off from the team when the reached the Gryffindor common room. By the time Remus and Peter returned from their study session just before lunch, they were in their dressing gowns, sitting on Sirius's bed, drinking tea and writing letters to James's parents.

Remus stopped in the doorway, eyes narrowed. "That's my tea, isn't it?"

"Might be," said Sirius, rolling up his parchment and securing it with a Sealing charm.

The tea had a pleasant soothing effect, which was why Sirius had pilfered it in the first place. James's demeanor was much calmer now, and Sirius, too, felt more relaxed.

"I wish you'd ask first," Remus grumbled, checking his stash to see how much was missing. "That stuff's not cheap, you know."

"James had bad news from home," Sirius told him.

"Oh." Remus sat down on his bed. "What happened?"

James handed over the disintegrating remains of the Prophet, and Remus tried to make out the story while James supplied the few known details in a dull tone.

"I'll replace your tea," he finished. "I know you get it special."

"No, it's all right," Remus said quickly. "It sounds like you needed it."

"Thanks. I will, though."

"So --" fidgeted Peter, ever uncomfortable in the face of other people's distress, "who won the Quidditch?"

Following Saturday's wet weather, the coughs and sniffles which had plagued the Slytherins since Halloween spread to the rest of the school. By Sunday evening, Madam Pomfrey had run out of her usual cure-alls, and was turning away those with non-critical ailments until she could find the time to brew more. So many people, including professors, came to class bleary-eyed on Monday, or were out altogether, that Dumbledore announced over supper that Tuesday's lessons would be cancelled, and advised everyone to use the day for rest.

Aside from a pair of red, runny noses on the part of James and Sirius, the Marauders were untouched by illness. A side-effect of Remus's lycanthropy was that, apart from headaches and nausea related to the lunar cycle, he rarely fell ill, for which he was grateful; he spent more than his fair share of time feeling miserable as it was.

Nevertheless, a grimness hung over the Gryffindor dormitory. The danger of the political situation in Wizarding Britain had touched James and Sirius for the first time, and they both felt it keenly. They reacted with a restless irritability, especially after James went to see Professor McGonagall, and was told that she had already spoken to his mother, and no, he would not be permitted to go home for a visit until the following weekend, nor would Sirius be allowed to accompany him without his own parents' consent.

Meanwhile, details of the attack trickled in, including the obituary notice of Ambrose Brown, age 29, printed in Monday's Prophet. Brown, it was reported, had died a hero, taking a Killing Curse meant for his partner, senior Auror Joseph Potter. Even the short letter James received from his father on Monday evening, saying that he was resting at home and not to worry, did not make James or Sirius feel much better.

Peter tried in vain to distract his friends with manic cheerfulness and abrupt changes of subject, but only succeeded in grating on his roommates' already-frayed nerves. Remus watched his friends with sympathy. Distraction was something they all sorely needed, but not of the sort Peter was trying so desperately to create. What James and Sirius needed was something constructive to occupy them.

"C'mon," he said, swinging his legs off the bed and shoving his feet into trainers. "Let's do something."

"Like what?" James asked suspiciously.

"Have either of you even started the assignment for Defence yet?"

Sirius groaned and flopped back onto his bed. "Defence is cancelled, you swot! We're meant to be resting today; not doing boring schoolwork."

"What if I promise it won't be boring?"

Peter sat up, closing the comic book he had been reading. "It's actually really cool."

"What is?" asked Sirius.

Remus rolled his eyes. "Do you even remember what the assignment was?"

Sirius shrugged. "Concealment charms or something."

"No, he's right," said James, sitting up. "We have to learn this stuff. It's not safe out there. Anyway, I need to do something. I'm going spare, just sitting around here."

Sirius sighed, reaching for his robes. "Fine, if you're all going."

Remus led them through the deserted corridors, pausing now and then to reach out with his senses, looking for just the right spot. At last, he stopped.

"OK, this is good," he told the others. "You can put your wands away; you won't need them for this."

"You said it wouldn't be boring," accused Sirius. "What kind of not-boring magic can you do without a wand?"

Remus shook his head, exasperated. "Magic isn't boring. D'you have any idea how many Muggle kids would give anything to trade places with us? Imagine what life would be like if you had to do everything the hard way -- if you didn't even know magic existed."

"I thought you said wizards weren't better than Muggles," Sirius sniffed.

"We're not," Remus told him. "We're just really, really lucky."

"All right, Professor Moony." It was Sirius's turn to roll his eyes. "What sort of 'interesting' magic are we doing without wands?"

"Pete? You want to show them?"

Immediately, Peter scrunched his eyes shut, screwing up his face in concentration. He swayed back and forth on the spot for a moment, tilting his head from side to side. Then his eyes popped open.

"There!" he pointed triumphantly at a shallow alcove in the stone wall.

Remus nodded approval. "Well done."

Sirius and James remained unimpressed until Remus stuck his hand into the alcove. His fingers appeared to sink into the stone. He felt around the edges and then ducked into the concealed space behind the illusion. A low stone passageway with an arched ceiling lay on the other side, disappearing into darkness.

When he reappeared in the corridor, James and Sirius looked back and forth between him and Peter in astonishment before hurrying over to inspect the enchanted alcove for themselves.

"How did you know that was there?" Sirius demanded.

"Can you teach us?" asked James, pulling his head back out of the wall.

"He taught me," said Peter. "If I can do it --"

Remus patted him on the shoulder. "You caught on really quickly once you understood it. You're better at this stuff than you think, Pete. Don't let anyone tell you you're not."

Peter beamed with pride, and Remus allowed himself a rare smile. He had known that his friends would never rest once they realised Peter had one up on them.

"And there's stuff just hidden all over the school?" asked Sirius. "Doorways and rooms and things we can't even see?"

Remus nodded. "Secret passages, hidden stairways, all kinds of things."

"Merlin, this is brilliant!" breathed James, eyes lighting up for the first time in days. "We could get all around the school without being seen!"

"Pringle and the rest of the staff probably know about most of them," Remus reminded him. "Anyone who knows how can find them as easily as we can."

"They could still be really useful," said James. "Show us how?"

It took Sirius and James a while to get the hang of it.

"It's not really 'seeing'," Remus explained patiently the fourth time he caught James peeking when he was meant to have his eyes closed in concentration. "I don't care what Gandolfsson says; you have to feel for it."

"But what does it feel like?" Sirius asked, arms flailing blindly.

Remus caught his hands, forcing them gently back down to his sides. "Sort of prickly. Tingly. Like static electricity. You know how you get a shock sometimes when you touch something metal after walking around in your stocking-feet? Like that. But it's really light, so you have to focus."

"But how do you --?" James started.

"You'll never get it if you keep talking," Remus told them. "Just relax, breathe deep, and empty your minds."

"No wonder Pete managed it," he heard Sirius mutter. "His mind's already as empty as a house-elf's sock drawer."

"Oi!" cried Peter, reddening.

Remus shot Sirius a quelling look. "Don't listen to him, Pete; he's just annoyed because you're better at something than he is. It's a feeling he should get used to if he's not willing to do the work."

"Shut up, all of you," snapped James, eyes popping open. "I almost had it for a second."

"Show me," said Remus.

James closed his eyes, turned, and pointed in the direction of the enchanted alcove.

"Yeah, brilliant," said Sirius sarcastically. "If he didn't already know where it was."

"OK," Remus sighed. "Let's try again. You two close your eyes, and Pete and I will spin you. You're not to peek until you've shown me you can sense the charm."

He took James by the arms and turned him half a dozen times, while Peter spun Sirius. The two boys swayed dizzily on the spot for a moment, but obediently kept their eyes shut. Remus circled around them so that his position would not give away the location of the enchanted alcove.

"Just breathe and reach out with your minds," he said softly. "I know you can do this. Be patient. Feel for the energy. Where is it coming from?"

"I think I feel it," Sirius muttered. "It's sort of -- warm."

"OK. Go towards it," said Remus. "Keep your eyes closed."

Sirius took a couple of hesitant steps, changed course, grew more confident -- and blundered straight into Remus, nearly knocking both of them to the floor.

"That's me, you prat," Remus informed him as Sirius clung to his shoulder for balance, eyes still closed.

"Sorry. I thought I felt -- never mind."

"It's all right," said Remus, steadying him. "We've all got magic in us. It didn't make as much difference the other day when it was just me and Pete, but I guess with four of us here, it's more confusing. Once you get the hang of it, you'll be able to use it to sense when there are other witches or wizards nearby, which can be really useful, too. But magic that's part of a person feels different from an enchantment. I should have realised when Sirius said it felt warm. Magic only feels warm when it's attached to something living. Anyway, good try, Sirius. You're definitely catching on. Now see if you can sense a cool energy instead."

"That's no good," quipped James. "He'll be bumping into me next."

Sirius snorted and Remus bit back a laugh. "Let's try again."

When they finally got the hang of it, Remus made them each show him they could do it three times in a row after being spun around, and they were rather giggly, both from dizziness and from the success of the lesson, by the time they headed back to Gryffindor tower.

"This is brilliant," said James. "We should make a map of the school with all the secret bits on it."

"Maybe there already is one," Peter mused. "We could ask the Prewetts."

"Dunno how Gandolfsson expects us to learn anything if he doesn't explain it properly." said Sirius.

"He's a rubbish teacher," agreed James.

"Not like our Professor Moony." Sirius grinned and gave Remus a slap on the shoulder. "Maybe you should apply for the job next year."

Remus's cheeks coloured at the praise. "I dunno," he said, biting his lip to hide a smile. "Some of the NEWT level students might not like being taught by a third year. Anyway, I heard the job is cursed."

Chapter Text

Professor McGonagall was waiting for him when he staggered out of the fireplace at the Three Broomsticks. As Head of Gryffindor House, it fell to her to collect him from the village.

"Potter," she greeted him with a nod, setting down her glass.

"Sorry I'm late, Professor."

"We've missed supper, but I'm sure Rosmerta can conjure up something for you, if you're hungry."

James was too worn out to even feel surprised at the offer. He glanced at the pretty young barmaid, polishing the bar with a rag, and shook his head. "No, Ma'am," he lied. "My mother fed me before I left."

The night was cold and misty, and James pulled his cloak tight around him, shivering, as they walked down Hogsmeade's darkened high street, their way lit only by the glow of the Professor's wand.

"How are your parents, Potter?" McGonagall asked.

James shrugged, distracted. "Fine."

"Your father is recovering well?"


"'Yes, Professor'," she corrected, not unkindly.

"Sorry. Yes, Professor. He's -- better."

"How is Ellie holding up?"

James glanced up, startled. "I didn't know you knew my mum, Professor."

"Only slightly," admitted McGonagall. "She played Quidditch for Gryffindor when I started at Hogwarts, but she left school before I joined the team."

James shook his head, dismissing the thought of a young McGonagall in Quidditch robes as too ridiculous to contemplate. "Mum's doing all right. But she seemed -- tired. Professor."

"No wonder if she is," said the witch. "It's a hard time to be married to an Auror."

The way she said it made James wonder if the Transfiguration mistress had ever been married, but it was far too personal a question to ask, so he merely nodded.

They lapsed into silence as they passed between the great winged stone boars that flanked the gate into the school grounds. At the castle's heavy oak doors, McGonagall paused.

"I know how you children think of me, Potter," she said, "but the Head of House doesn't exist only to dole out punishments. I hope you know that if you ever feel the need to speak with an adult in confidence, you can always come to me."

"Thank you, Professor," said James, doubting the possibility.

"Well, then ..."

Supper was just wrapping up in the Great Hall, and a few students leaving in ones and twos cast curious glances at James, standing at McGonagall's elbow. Part of him wanted to hurry up to Gryffindor tower and pretend to be asleep before anyone he knew saw him and started asking about his weekend, but that would only postpone the inevitable. Better to have it over with.

He pasted a grin onto his face. "Thanks for seeing me back, Professor. I hope I'm not too late for pudding!"

"Good night, Potter," she said as he hurried away to slip into the noisy cheer of the Great Hall.

Remus saw him first, and said something to the others. Sirius turned, eyes lighting up, and shoved Peter farther down the bench to make room between them.

"Hey, lads," said James, scooping a large helping of sticky toffee pudding into a bowl as he sat down. "I hope you weren't too bored without me."

"Nah," said Sirius. "Moo- Remus showed us a secret cupboard on the third floor, and I think I found a new way to sneak down to the kitchens. How are your mum and dad?"

"They're fine." Hungry though he wasn't, he stuffed his mouth with pudding to avoid any further questions.

Later, as the four of them got ready for bed, James took twice as long as usual about cleaning his teeth, and made himself very busy putting his things away, and getting out books and parchment for the next day's lessons. When he could find no more to do, he yawned hugely.

"I'm all in. G'night, lads," he said, pulling his bed curtains firmly shut.

There was a brief silence. Sirius started to say something, but Remus interrupted him, voice too low for James to catch what he said. The pre-bedtime rustlings resumed, unaccompanied by conversation.

Darkness and quiet descended on the dormitory, broken only by Peter's familiar snore. James couldn't sleep. His thoughts kept going around and around in the same endless circles they had been following since he first learned his father was in hospital.

He didn't realise one of his friends was out of bed until the curtains parted and the mattress sank under someone's weight.

"How are they really?" Sirius asked.

"Told you. They're fine."

"Pull the other one, mate."

James turned away from him. "Dunno what you're talking about."

Sirius gave a soft snort. "I actually saw you fold your clothes. When've you ever done that before? So either Remus has rubbed off on you more than I thought, or something's wrong."

"It's nothing," James sighed. "Really, they're fine."

"I thought we were brothers," said Sirius quietly. "They're my mum and dad, too. Sort of. As good as. If something's wrong --"

"It's not them, it's me," James finally admitted, moving over to give Sirius room to stretch out. "I just never thought -- Did they seem old to you when you met them?"

He felt Sirius shrug. "Not much older than my parents. And not as old as Pete's mum."

"But they are," said James in an exasperated whisper. "I just never saw it before now. Dad moved like an old man. He could barely get off the sofa without mum's help. Mum looked so tired. Did you know she's older than McGonagall? And Dad's even older than her."

"He's going to get better, though, isn't he?" asked Sirius.

"Yeah. I guess. But he's not going back to work until after the Christmas hols, and he made a joke about his fieldwork days being over. At least, I think it was a joke."

"Well, that's good, isn't it?" Sirius reasoned. "I mean, if he's stuck behind some desk at the Ministry, nothing bad can happen to him, can it? Your mum won't have to worry about him all day anymore."

"But he's one of their best Aurors! And now they're acting like they don't need him anymore? Gandolfsson's always going on about how much they need good Aurors, and now Dad's out of it and Ambrose is dead. Who's going to catch all those Dark wizards now?"

"We are," said Sirius.

James frowned at his friend's outline in the darkness. "We're second years, Sirius. What are we going to do?"

"Not right away, I don't mean," Sirius elaborated. "But next year, they'll have the Prewetts, and a few years after that -- Without your dad in it, if this war thing happens, it will probably go on for a bit. They might need us by the time we're old enough."

"But -- if they got to Dad, how can we --?"

"We'll be just as good as him," said Sirius eagerly. "Better than. You'll see. We'll make him proud. Until we're old enough to start training, we'll learn everything we can. We'll practise everything Gandolfsson teaches us, and we'll make the Prewetts let us into their Defence club."

"They won't," James said glumly. "And Gandolfsson doesn't teach us anything; he just knocks us on our arses and tells us how rubbish we are at everything."

"Moony always figures it out," Sirius reminded him. "He can show us. We'll study with him properly, like he's always after us to do."


"C'mon," Sirius elbowed him in the ribs. "Who at this school is cleverer than us? We always find a way."

"We do." In spite of himself, James grinned. "I'm feeling peckish. Did you say you found a new way down to the kitchens?"

He hadn't noticed anything at first. Directly after, Sirius had been on high alert, trying every minute to figure out whether anything had changed, but he felt disappointingly normal. Everything smelled and tasted the same as it always had. Then there had been all the worry over James and his family, and for a while, he was too distracted to think about much else. But over the past few days, Sirius had begun to notice -- something.

The feeling was hard to put into words. It was somewhere between a flutter and a tug, and he couldn't say whether it was in his belly or only in his mind.

The dormitory door opened behind him, and there it was again, just at the edge of his senses. Sirius smiled to himself, but didn't look up from his Transfiguration homework. He didn't have to.

"Hey, Moony."

"Hey." Remus no longer seemed to mind the use of the nickname when they were alone, or maybe he had just given up hope of making Sirius stop using it. "Are you finished with my History of Magic notes? Lily and I are going to study in the common room."

"Studying History with Evans?" Sirius leaned over the side of the bed to rummage through his bookbag. "How do you always manage to come up with such thrilling ways to spend your free time?"

The parchment was somewhat the worse for wear. With a twinge of guilt, Sirius tried to smooth out the worst of the creases before handing it over.

The corners of Remus's mouth tightened as he accepted his rumpled notes. "You can join us, if you like," he said reluctantly.

Sirius swallowed a sarcastic reply. "I've got Transfiguration to do."

"OK. See you at supper."

As the dormitory door closed, Sirius grinned. There was no doubt in his mind. He could sense Remus. Whenever the other boy was nearby, Sirius knew it, whether he could see him or not, and the sense of him was only growing stronger as the moon waxed towards full.

Sirius could sense that, too. Indoors or outdoors, day or night, Sirius had begun to notice that he could tell where the moon was in the sky without thinking or looking, and he could feel it getting fatter with each passing day.

He scratched down a few more words on his Transfiguration homework, and then pushed it aside. The assignment wasn't due for another three days, and Remus would be studying with Evans until supper. It was safe to do a little extracurricular reading.

A History and Physiology of Lupus Lycanthropus by Hati Vlkodlak was hidden at the bottom of Sirius's trunk. He and James had "borrowed" it from Madam Pomfrey's office the previous spring. It was old and heavy enough to make the bed creak when Sirius dropped it onto the red-and-gold coverlet. It was quite possibly, in Sirius's opinion, the dullest book ever written on the subject of werewolves, but sometimes it was informative. He flopped onto his belly and propped the book against the pillows, thumbing through until he found the section he was looking for.

Secondary infection, commonly called 'blood contamination' or 'tainting', occurs when the blood, saliva, or other bodily fluids of an untransformed lycanthrope enter the bloodstream of an uninfected human, whether Wizard or Muggle, via an open wound or absorption through a mucus membrane. Such infection is irreversible, but is generally harmless to the affected person, and depending on the degree of infection, is sometimes symptomless. Secondary infection transmitted via blood-to-blood contact or coitus invariably produces the most potent effects, with the venereal form of infection sometimes being passed on to an affected female's subsequent offspring. Prolonged or repeated exposure to the lycanthropic pathogen has been known to increase the severity of symptoms. Known symptoms of secondary infection may include but are not limited to...

Vlkodlak's list filled more than ten pages. Sirius scanned through them, frowning. The ability to sense the presence of a werewolf or the moon was not listed. Or maybe it was. There were a lot of scientific, Latin-sounding words which Sirius was unable to make head or tail of. Come to that, he wasn't certain what "pathogen", "coitus", or "venereal" meant, either.

After more than an hour of checking the index and flipping pages in vain, Sirius thumped the book closed with a sound of annoyance. How was he supposed to learn anything from a book full of words no one had ever heard of before? Making a mental note to raid Madam Pomfrey's office for more satisfactory reading materials, he returned the book to its hiding place and pulled on his robes for supper.

In spite of his irritation, Sirius couldn't suppress a smile of satisfaction when he sensed Remus approaching him in the Great Hall.

"What are you smiling about?" he asked, casting Sirius a wary look.


Sirius quickly turned his attention to his food. He had no intention of telling Remus about his discovery. Not yet. He would not mention it to James or Peter either, since neither of them knew about the incident in the hospital wing. It would only alarm them, Remus most of all. For now, it would be his secret.

Stabbing his fork into a thick slab of steak, he sawed at the tender meat with his knife. The rich scent and the sight of the red juice that ran from it made his stomach growl, and he hid another smile. He had never liked rare steak before. Quickly, Sirius popped a piece into his mouth and began to chew to hide his expression. It tasted of triumph.

"We don't have to know where it is, so long as we know when it is," reasoned James as he performed a quick scouring charm on his cauldron before shoving it into his bookbag. "They're bound to come back to the dormitories after class to stow their things before they go."

"You're sure it's this afternoon?" asked Peter as the four of them exited the Potions classroom.

James nodded. "Heard them talking about it at lunch."

"OK, so we'll wait in the common room and follow them when they go," said Sirius. "You want to see Pomfrey for that headache, M- Remus?"

"No," said Remus, pinching the bridge of his nose, eyes screwed shut. "I just need some fresh air."

Back in the dormitory, Remus opened the two windows as wide as they would go and lay down on his bed, an arm flung across his eyes. Peter caught Sirius's frown of concern.

"D'you want to come with us, Lupin?" James asked.

Remus sighed. "No, I should try to get some classwork done while I can. I'll be useless by this weekend."

"I'm coming," declared Peter, brandishing his wand as he imagined all the new spells they were about to learn.

"You?" Sirius snorted. "It's the Advanced Defence Club. The only thing you're advanced at in Defence is getting knocked on your arse."

Peter's shoulders slumped.

"Sirius." Remus's reproof was barely more that a whisper.

"OK, you can come, Pete," Sirius relented. "Just don't expect to be brilliant at it."

Peter cast a grateful glance toward Remus. "I know," he admitted. "But if I can even learn one or two more Defence spells, it will be worth it."

"If we're going to do this, we'd better head down to the common room." James was already standing by the door. There was an irritable hint in his voice.

"Keep your shirt on, Potter," said Sirius, rummaging through his book bag. "I just need to find my Potions notes for Moony."

James gave a huff of annoyance. "Fine. I'm going down. I'll see you there, or not, as you like."

Peter scurried after him before James could slam the door behind him.

"This is going to be brilliant," he babbled as they descended the tower steps. "D'you think it's more likely to be Shield charms or hexes that we'll learn?"

James only grunted.

"I hope it's hexes," Peter continued. "Not that Shield charms aren't good, but they're not very exciting, are they?"

"Shhh," hissed James. "D'you want the Prewetts to know we're planning on crashing their meeting?"

The good squashy armchairs and comfortable sofa by the fire were all occupied by older Gryffindors, so Peter and James had to settle for a couple of wooden chairs around a study table in the corner. Neither of them had thought to bring anything to do, so Peter stared at his hands while James scowled into the middle distance.

Fortunately, it was not too many minutes before the Prewetts appeared, clattering down the steps, deep in animated conversation. When they saw their younger cohorts, they stopped.

"What are you lads up to?" asked Fabian.

Peter panicked, face going red. "I -- we --" They had never talked about a cover story!

"We're waiting for Black," James mumbled, barely glancing up.

"Not planning any mischief, I hope?" grinned Gideon. "Some of the Slytherins have only just finished drying out."

James shot the twins a look. "Well, that was nothing to do with us."

"Never said it was," said Gideon, eyebrows raised. "See you at supper."

"How do you do that?" asked Peter, as the portrait hole closed behind the Prewetts.

"Huh?" James twiddled his wand distractedly.

"You always act so cool, and you always know the right thing to say."

James shrugged and stood up. "If you freak out, people know something's up. C'mon, let's go."

"You're not waiting for Sirius?" asked Peter, surprised.

"If we wait any longer, we'll miss our chance."

Outside of the portrait hole, James paused, motioning for silence, then the two of them hurried off in the direction of the twins' echoing voices. They stayed well back to avoid being seen, only venturing around corners after the older boys had turned the next one. They had been forced to stop and wait for a moment when running feet sounded behind them and Sirius appeared, out of breath.

"We need a way to find one another," he panted. "This school's too bloody big."

James looked annoyed. "If you hadn't been fussing over your notes, you wouldn't've needed to find us."

"Remus needed them," Sirius scowled.

"Shut up," James whispered over his shoulder, already slipping around the corner. "D'you want them to know they're being followed? When we get there, let me do the talking."

Sirius's scowl deepened. "Who died and left you in charge?"

"I'm in charge because I'm smarter than you and Pete put together. C'mon if you're coming." He hurried off down the corridor.

Sirius followed, a stormy look in his eyes, and Peter brought up the rear, suddenly doubting that this was the jolly adventure he had first thought. He was glad James was smart and the leader, though he could understand why Sirius might not be. Sirius was almost as smart as James, but he was impulsive, which sometimes led him to do foolish things without thinking. The thought of having to talk his way around the Prewetts and into the Advanced Defence Club made Peter break into a cold sweat, but James would get them all in without half trying.

Peter had almost managed to regain his usual optimism, when they rounded the next bend and his feet were roughly yanked out from under him. He found himself suspended by his ankles several feet above the floor, his robes falling about his face.

"Lemme go! I didn't do it!" he squeaked, flailing his arms uselessly.

He could hear similar cries of outrage from James and Sirius somewhere nearby. When he finally managed to push his clothing out of his eyes, he found his view still largely obscured by the robes of his two friends, who hung between himself and a pair of unamused Prewetts.

"Not very stealthy, are they?" said Gideon.

"They do seem a little high-strung," Fabian agreed.

"Let me down, you tossers," Sirius growled. He drew his wand, twisting in the air to point at the twins, rather than the stone wall a few inches in front of his face.

Fabian flicked an almost lazy "Expelliarmus," in his direction, which was followed by the clatter of wood on stone.

Sirius directed a stream of foul language at the wall.

"Shut it, if you don't want us to shut it for you," snapped Fabian, waggling his wand meaningfully. "Now, would you amateurs mind awfully explaining what you thought you were doing?"

James attempted his usual easy-going grin. "We want to join the Defence Club."

Peter admired his composure. Only James could be so charming while dangling from the ceiling by his feet.

The Prewetts, however, were unimpressed. "We've told you before; you're too young."

"It's not like we're babies or girls," Sirius grumbled. "We're practically the best at Defence in our year. You should be glad we --"

"Claudeos." James had managed to get his own wand free.

Sirius twisted and flailed in the air, screams of outrage muffled by his suddenly sealed lips.

"See?" said James. "We know our stuff. At least, I do. Think how much more we could learn from you, if you'd let us."

"Look," said Fabian, frowning, "it's not that that isn't a useful little hex, but it's small beer compared with the stuff we're practising."

Gideon nodded. "Have you even heard of the Patronus charm?"

"The what?" Peter asked. James shook his head. Sirius, tired out from flailing, simply hung in the air, looking disgruntled.

"Exactly," said Fabian. "It's very advanced magic. We're too busy to teach you lot everything you'll learn between now and OWLs in order to catch you up to where we're at."

"You can't keep us out," James told them. "I checked the rules on school clubs. You have to let anyone in who wants to join."

But Gideon shook his head. "That may be true for social clubs, but the Advanced Defence Club is technically a study group. We're within our rights to restrict entry based on academic achievement. No one below OWL year is allow in, not even Egbert Bones."

James did not have a ready answer to that. Egbert was Amelia Bones' younger brother, a fourth year Hufflepuff. Their father had been killed in the Easter Murders the previous spring, the event which had prompted the creation of the Advanced Defence Club in the first place. If even he was not permitted to participate, the chances of second years being admitted were slim.

Peter summoned up his courage. "Will you at least let us watch?"

"No," said Fabian. "You'd only be in the way."

Gideon glanced at his watch. "We're going to be late."

Fabian nodded, eyes still on the suspended second years. "I didn't mention to anyone that you were all out the night the Slytherins got soaked," he said, a warning note in his voice, "so let's let this be the last we hear of you wanting into the Defence club. All right?"

James hesitated a moment. "Yeah, OK," he said at last, grudgingly.

Peter nodded vigorously. "Can we come down now?"

"We might as well not have even bothered," Sirius grumbled as the three of them made their disgruntled way back to Gryffindor Tower.

James cast him a dark look. "So sorry to have wasted your time, Black. I didn't realise you had better things to do. Did I intrude on study time with Moony?"

"Shut it," barked Sirius.

"Maybe they're just tired of having second years hanging around all the time," said Peter, hoping to change the subject and halt his friends' bickering.

The Prewetts had been kind enough to let them down and unstick Sirius's mouth before sending them on their way. Peter rather wished they hadn't. He hated it when his friends were cross with one another, and Sirius's cutting remarks often made matters worse.

"No surprise if they're tired of Black," snapped James. "What part of 'let me do the talking' did you not understand? Now we'll never get into their club."

"As if it was all my fault," Sirius sneered. "Dunno why we want into their rotten club anyway."

James threw up his hands in exasperation. "Do you never take anything seriously, Black?"

"No," said Sirius grumpily. "And neither do you, Potter. At least, you didn't before Dad --"

"Don't." There was a warning note in James's voice. "I'm not in the mood to be one big happy family right now."

Sirius looked wounded.

He's right, though, thought Peter. Sirius was often sarcastic and belligerent -- though he seemed a little touchier than usual today -- while James hardly ever was. He had been on edge ever since his father's attack has been reported in the newspaper, his normally-cheerful disposition transmuted into tense moodiness. Peter wondered what it would be like to spend the next six years living in a dormitory with two warring roommates. The thought made his belly hurt.

"You can't blame me just because you've suddenly gone all swotty about Defence," said Sirius.

"I can and I will," grumbled James. "If I wind up dead, it'll be all your fault, Black.

Chapter Text

Night came early and lasted long in the Highlands in November. Remus wasn't sure if he was glad to be missing supper or not. He was ravenously hungry, but the headache that had been plaguing him for days would not be improved by the clatter and hubbub of the Great Hall. Exposure to James and Sirius's ongoing surliness was unlikely to improve matters, either.

For the past several days, Sirius had sat with Remus and Lily at meals, contributing only a few grouchy syllables to the conversation, while James and Peter sat by themselves farther down the table. None of them were speaking to the Prewetts. Remus did not have the energy to deal with his moody friends, but tonight, he didn't have to. The full moon would rise hours before supper.

Remus shivered and hunched his shoulders, walking faster. It was not the chill of the empty halls -- his skin was flushed with moon fever -- but contemplation of the long night ahead. It would be more than sixteen hours before a new days' dawn wakened him back to his human self.

The echoing slap of running feet on the stairs and the sound of harsh breathing made Remus cringe and back up against the wall at the doors to the hospital wing. He did not want anyone to see him in his current state.

It was Sirius. He must have run all the way back from his afternoon detention with McGonagall.

"Didn't think I'd catch you," he gasped.

Remus looked away. He didn't want his friends' pity and he didn't want them drawing attention to his monthly visits to the hospital wing. A hand on his shoulder made him tense.

"I wish you wouldn't --"

But Sirius only gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze before letting go and stepping away. Surprised, Remus looked up into his friend's face.

Sirius gave him a lopsided smile. "See you tomorrow, Moony," he said quietly.

Madam Pomfrey appeared in the doorway. "Ah, there you are, Mr Lupin." Her eyes narrowed as she beheld Sirius. "Are you well, Mr Black?"

Sirius nodded. "I was just making sure Remus got here all right."

"Of course," said the matron. "I had heard Mr Lupin wasn't feeling well. We may need to keep him overnight. Good evening, Mr Black."

She turned away, and Remus followed her wordlessly through the hospital doors, trying to squash the tiny, treacherous part of him that didn't seem to mind Sirius coming to see him off.

Sirius waited in an alcove until Remus and Madam Pomfrey left the hospital wing, hidden under a Disillusionment charm. He counted to thirty before following them as quietly as he could manage down the staircase to the entrance hall, and stood there, watching through the crack between the great double doors, as they made their way to the Whomping Willow. He stayed until Remus's shimmery outline vanished between the tree's roots and the matron turned back towards the castle. It didn't matter that Remus didn't know he was there; Sirius did not want him to be alone.

He didn't say anything when he rejoined James and Peter for supper that night. Sirius wasn't about to sit with girls if Remus wasn't there, and the Prewetts had humiliated him. James gave him a grunt of acknowledgement, and Peter offered an uncertain smile. The meal passed in silence.

Sirius's thoughts kept returning to Remus. Was it cold in the house in Hogsmeade? Did he get lonely? Was he hurting himself? He gazed moodily up at the east end of the Great Hall, where the enchanted ceiling showed the face of the rising moon, peeking through a thick covering of grey cloud.

When supper vanished from the plate before him, Sirius found he had eaten very little. He wasn't hungry. As the puddings shimmered into existence, he pushed away from the table. James glanced up, catching his eye, but didn't ask where he was going, which was just as well, because Sirius didn't know.

He felt restless, like he wanted to run and run and never stop. Taking the great staircase two steps at a time, Sirius almost flew to the third floor landing. He didn't want to go back to Gryffindor tower yet; all the rooms there were too small. Instead, he sprinted down an empty corridor, taking turns without paying any attention to where he was going. This part of the castle was cold and dark and silent, with only the faint glow of silver moonlight through the unglazed windows to light his way. Sirius yelled as he ran until his throat was raw, throwing inarticulate rage at the darkness.

He only just stopped himself from barrelling headlong into a little man in loud green robes floating in the middle of the corridor.

"Can't do that!" declared the figure. "Not allowed. Only one poltergeist may inhabit the castle at a time, and that one is me! Out out out!"

"Shove off, Peeves," said Sirius grumpily.

The little man eyed him more closely. "Ooh, Blacksie! Causing trouble, are we?"

"No. Just blowing off steam. You can't do anything to me. I'm not breaking any rules."

"The Ickle Smalls is supposed to be all tucked up in their Houses once dinner is done," said the poltergeist, putting on an expression of mock virtue.

"Dinner isn't done," Sirius sneered. "I left early." He turned on his heel and walked back the way he had come, hands in his pockets.

"Shouldn't go running through the halls baying at the moon," Peeves sang out, zooming after him. "People might think you're maaaaaaaaaad."

He grabbed Sirius by the head, ruffling his hair wildly and eliciting another angry shout, before vanishing through the wall with a high-pitched cackle.

James and Peter were already back in the dormitory by the time Sirius returned.

"Where were you?" Peter asked.

Sirius shrugged. "Around." He sat down on his bed, pulled Vlkodlak's book out from under his pillow, and began paging through it aimlessly.

Halfway into his pyjamas, James paused. "Still reading that thing?"

"No," said Sirius, slamming the cover shut. "It's useless. I need something that's written in words more than ten people know." He slid off the bed again. "I'm going to knick a better one from Pomfrey's office. You can come if you like."

James snorted. "You know as well as I do that she sleeps in there. But best of luck, mate."

Sirius scowled at him and shoved the book back under his pillow. "Well, what are we going to do, then?"

"I'm going to check over my assignments and then go to sleep," said James. "If you're clever, you will, too. It's double Defence in the morning, and I want to be ready for once."

"We can't sleep," Sirius told him. "We need to come up with ideas."

"For what?" asked Peter absently, smoothing out the Charms assignment he hadn't quite finished yet.

"For Remus, obviously."

"Oh, obviously." James rolled his eyes.

Peter shrugged. "What can we do? It seems like Dumbledore and Pomfrey are handling it."

If looks could kill, the glare Sirius gave his roommates would have been classified "Unforgivable".

James was unimpressed. "Pete's right. We're second years. What can we do that Dumbledore and Pomfrey haven't already thought of?"

"We're his friends," Sirius reminded them. "You said you'd help him."

"Like you helped me get into the Prewetts' club?" asked James. "He's probably better off without your 'help'."

Sirius scowled. "This is different."

"Too right it is. It's different because in this case I know there's nothing we can do," James told him, getting into bed. "Remus is a good bloke, and if there were anything I could do to help him, I would in a second. But there isn't. So unless you have any brilliant ideas you haven't shared yet, I'm turning it." He pulled the covers up and began looking over his assignments for the next day.

Sirius glared at him.

"Do you have any ideas?" Peter asked. "I'd like to help Remus if I can, but I don't know how."

Sirius sighed and shook his head. "Go to bed, Pete. You want to be ready for Defence tomorrow."

He got into his own bed and yanked the curtains closed, but he didn't feel tired. How could James and Peter call themselves Remus's friends when all they wanted to do while he was suffering was check over their schoolwork and get an early night? By the time the lights went out in the dormitory, Sirius was feeling very huffy indeed, and no closer to any brilliant ideas.

He tossed and turned in the darkness, punching the pillow into a more satisfactory shape, then changing his mind and flattening it again. The room felt stuffy, and Sirius got up to open a window. He stood there for a moment as the late autumn chill crept over him, but a soft rain had begun to fall and the wind was in the wrong direction. Listen though he might, no sound drifted up from the village.

Sirius stared belligerently at his rumpled bed, feeling no desire to return to it. The curtains of Remus's four-poster were drawn back. The bed had been neatly made, though the covers were mussed where Remus had sat earlier, trying in vain to finish his school work as the coming moon worked its will upon his blood.

"He should be here," Sirius whispered. "It's not fair."

His bare feet padded soundlessly across the floorboards and he climbed up onto the empty bed. The pillow smelled comfortingly of Remus. It calmed Sirius's anger. After a time, the chill from the open window drove him under the covers. Eventually, he slept.

Sirius woke to the sniggers of his roommates.

"Aw, did widdle Siwius get wonwey wiffout his Mooooony?" crooned James.

Scowling, Sirius sat up. "What time is it?"

"Half eight," said Peter. "We've still got time for breakfast if we --"

But Sirius was already out of bed and diving headfirst into his trunk for fresh clothes. He dressed haphazardly, ignoring Peter's questions and James's mockery, before tearing out the door and down the tower steps without pausing to comb his hair or tie his shoes.

When he reached the hospital wing, Madam Pomfrey blocked his way. She was still wearing her cloak, and her hands were full of bandages.

"Mr Lupin is resting," she said firmly. "No visitors."

Sirius glared at her defiantly, but both of them turned when the curtains around the infirmary's only occupied bed rustled, and a hand appeared.

The matron hurried over and stuck her head between the curtains. A moment later, she turned back to Sirius, frowning.

"He says you can come. Five minutes." She pursed her lips. "I don't like this."

Sirius did not care what Pomfrey liked or didn't. He was already pushing past her and ducking between the curtains.

Remus looked exhausted. There were dark smudges under his eyes. Even his lips were pale, except for a puffy red place that looked as if he'd bitten it. A bandage covered his left arm from shoulder to elbow. Sirius tried to give his friend a reassuring smile as he slid into the visitor's chair, but it felt all wrong on his mouth. He hated seeing Remus like this.

"Hey," he said.

Remus opened his mouth, but no sound emerged. His eyes flicked over to the nightstand where a glass of water stood, but everything else about him suggested that reaching for it was more than he was capable of just now.

Sirius picked up the glass, carefully tilting it to Remus's lips. Remus swallowed a little, wincing.

"Thanks," he rasped, not meeting Sirius's eyes.

"You OK?" Sirius asked.

Remus gave a barely perceptible nod. "You shouldn't be here."

Sirius shrugged. "Pomfrey didn't throw me out."

"She'll know you know now." Remus's voice was no more than a rough whisper. "Supposed to be secret."

Sirius gave him another sip of water when he began to cough. "So tell her I won't tell anyone."

"She doesn't trust you."

Sirius frowned. "Well, she should. You do."

"You should be in class. Defence this morning." Remus's eyelids were drooping.

"Sod Defence." Sirius rolled his eyes. "Anyway, you've got Potter and Evans to take notes for you."

"Pomfrey won't let you stay," slurred Remus. "Need to sleep."

It was only because he looked so weary that Sirius didn't make a fuss when the matron returned a moment later to order him out.

"I'll see you later," he said, but Remus's eyes were already closed, and he did not reply.

Sirius left the hospital wing feeling let down. He had hoped a visit from a friend might cheer Remus after his long night, but Remus hadn't seemed to want him there at all.

How can I help him if he won't let me? he thought grumpily as he hurried to Defence Against the Dark Arts.

As he slid into his seat, Peter leaned over.

"How is he?" he whispered.

"Fine," said Sirius shortly. "Resting."

"Did you tuck him in and make him a cup of tea?" teased James.

Sirius's cheeks flushed. "I only saw him for a minute. Pomfrey wouldn't let me stay."

"You would've missed class?" Peter asked incredulously.

Sirius shrugged as the bell rang signalling the start of the lesson.

"You say you want to be an Auror, but it seems like you can't be bothered with Defence lately," muttered James. "Did you even bring a quill or anything with you today?"

Sirius felt slightly guilty -- he was supposed to be taking notes for Remus -- but he excused himself, whispering, "We hardly ever take notes in Defence. Anyway, I bet I'll make a better Auror than you ever will, Potter."

James shot him a cold look, but their conversation was cut short.

"Communication," said Professor Gandolfsson from his carpet seat at the front of the classroom. "What is it? Can any of you likely lot tell me?"

A few tentative hands went up. No one wanted to draw the Defence master's attention, but they had learned over the last several weeks that a lack of classroom participation greatly increased one's odds of random hexings and visits to the matron.

"Rosier," said Gandolfsson, nodding to the curly-haired Slytherin boy.

"Communication is talking, Sir. To other people."

"Accurate but limited," sniffed Gandolfsson. "Potter."

"Writing, Sir," said James confidently. "Communication is about words."

"Partially correct, but still mostly wrong," Gandolfsson told him.

Sirius could not help snickering quietly. James had been acting like such a know-it-all about Defence lately. Unfortunately, the Defence master heard him.

"Did you have something to add to our woefully limited list, Mr Black?" he asked.

For a moment, Sirius was at a loss. Then he caught the contemptuous look James was giving him. "Facial expressions?"

Gandolfsson nodded. "Better, but still only scratching the surface. Anyone else? Snape."

"Thoughts," said Snape smugly.

"Good." Gandolfsson gave the hook-nosed Slytherin boy a long, searching look. "But perhaps a little beyond what this class is capable of. Mr Snape is speaking of the twin arts of Legilimency and Dictamency: mind reading and mind speaking, for those who do not know."

Sirius frowned. He had never even heard of Legilimency or Dictamency. He resolved to look them up later. It was no good letting Snape get one up on him.

"Words, expressions, gestures," Gandolfsson continued, slowly floating around the classroom as he spoke, "body language, the way you dress, who you associate with, even the way you look at another person. Every choice a person makes has meaning, and can be read by anyone with the wit to know how. It's better to keep your mouth shut and your face still, but sometimes even that will give you away. For now, we will stick to the basics, since I'm sure that's all your minds are capable of grasping."

He stopped in front of Sirius, fixing him with a look of mild irritation. "Lesson one: avoid having private conversations in public. What do you think I might have learned from your conversation with Potter and Pettigrew at the start of the lesson, Mr Black?"

Sirius tensed. Had he said anything that might hint at Remus's secret? He couldn't remember. "I don't know, Sir."

Gandolfsson was silent for a moment, and Sirius quickly schooled his face into the expression of practised disdain he had learned from his parents.

"Many things," Gandolfsson said at last, "few of them interesting. You and Potter fancy yourselves future Aurors, do you?"

Sirius relaxed slightly, but remained wary. "Yes, Sir."

The Defence master snorted. "You'll never be Aurors. Neither one of you has the discipline for it. Everything that goes on in those empty heads of yours is written across your faces, plain as day."

"I want to learn. Sir." James's voice was a touch louder than was decent for the classroom setting. Gandolfsson's words had clearly nettled him. "Isn't that why we're here? So you can teach us to be better at this stuff?"

Gandolfsson gave him a look of cold disinterest. "Those who have ready minds will learn. There is little I can do for the rest of you."

"How can we learn anything if you won't teach us?" James almost shouted.

Sirius drew in a breath, shocked by this uncharacteristic outburst. A few of the girls gasped. Evans' hands were pressed over her mouth. A couple of Slytherins were grinning. Snape leaned forwards eagerly.

"You'll learn what I think you're fit to learn, boy," said Gandolfsson, moving in until he was almost nose-to-nose with James. "For some, that means learning to defend themselves. For others, it means learning how to hide and stay safe until the danger has passed. If you try to do one when you're better off doing the other, you'll wind up as dead as that fool, Brown."

James went red. For a second, he looked as if he were choking. Then three things happened at once. James went for his wand, Sirius a whisper behind him, but Gandolfsson's wand was already in his hand.

"Frigidarius," thundered the Defence master.

"Confringo," Sirius shouted.

Gandolfsson flew backwards, crashing into Lockhart's desk with considerable force. Somehow, he managed to stay on his carpet.

But it was not at the Defence master, nor at Sirius, that the rest of the class stared, round-eyed. Sirius turned to look, and was unable to contain a cry of shock. James stood, mouth open, wand out, frozen inside a block of ice.

"Will he be all right, Professor?" asked Matilda Hathersage, voice unusually high-pitched.

"Potter is well enough," grumbled Gandolfsson, adjusting his seat.

"How long are you going to keep him like that?" demanded Sirius.

Gandolfsson gave him a piercing look. "Maybe you need to cool off as well, Black. Then perhaps you'll remember to address your betters with the proper respect."

Sirius took a deep breath, clenching his jaw, and lowered his wand. "I meant no disrespect, Sir," he said stiffly.

Ignoring the near-apology, the Defence master turned back to James. "Thermatis."

The ice gave a loud crack and began to melt, then, with a splash, dissolved into a puddle which spread across the floor of the classroom.

"Clean that up," ordered Gandolfsson to a soaked and shivering James.

Immediately, Sirius moved to offer assistance.

"Did I tell you to help him, Black?"

"No, Sir," said Sirius, jaw clenched harder than ever.

"Then sit down."

"S-stay out of it, Black." James's teeth were chattering as he tried to work a Siphoning charm.

"You see what I mean? Undisciplined," said Gandolfsson, shaking his head. "You should never lose your temper in a fight, or hex someone in anger. It's too easy to make a mistake, like Black, shouting out the first spell that came to mind. That's a charm meant for removing obstacles, Black; not a hex or a curse."

James glared at Sirius, who tilted his chin up, defiant. Gandolfsson did not miss the look.

"Lovers' spat, is it? If you can't even maintain civility with your friends, how can you ever hope to infiltrate an enemy stronghold?" he said contemptuously. "Aurors, indeed. Give me your wands."

Startled, James and Sirius obeyed.

The Defence master snorted. "Never give your wand away without knowing exactly why it's needed."

"Can we have them back, Sir?" asked James.

Gandolfsson waved his own wand, and the two in his maimed fist vanished. "You can have them back when you find them. They're somewhere in the castle. Call it a detention, but I'm not going to follow you around while you do it."

"But we have Charms this afternoon," said Sirius, stunned.

"Not my problem, Black." Gandolfsson raised his hands. "And now, desks away --"

"We can't do Defence drills without wands," James complained as the class jumped up and desks zipped to the margins of the classroom.

Gandolfsson's eyebrows rose. "Then you're just wasting everyone's time, aren't you? Go. Find them if you can."

Sirius stood, open-mouthed, for a moment as James angrily shoved his school things into his bookbag and stormed towards the door, wet robes making a slapping sound as he walked. Then he caught the look of unalloyed glee on Snape's face, flushed, and turned to follow his friend.

"Can you believe him?" he said when he caught up with James halfway down the corridor. "'Find them if you can.' Where are we even supposed to start?"

"You can start where you like," growled James. "I'm going back to the room to change."

"He could have put them anywhere," groused Sirius when they reached the abandoned Gryffindor common room. "They're probably in Slytherin or the girls' dormitory or Dumbledore's office. For all we know, they're inside one of the walls or stuffed inside a library book or something."

"It would serve you right," said James. "This never would have happened if you'd taken Defence seriously."

"You think it's my fault?" exclaimed Sirius. "You're the one who shouted at him in class."

James glared at him. "Well, maybe I wouldn't have done that if I wasn't already pissed off at you today."

"Hey, I know," Sirius sneered. "We could check whether that stick you've got up your arse is your wand."

"Shove off, Black. If this is all the 'help' you're going to be, why don't you just go visit your pet werewolf?"

Sirius blazed. With a shout, he threw himself at James, knocking the other boy into the back of the sofa. They crashed to the floor, yelling and swinging at one another. James seemed to be doing well at first, managing to connect a fist with Sirius's mouth, bloodying his lip, but he had not grown up with a younger brother. Sirius quickly regained the advantage, and by the time an arm reached down to yank him off of James, the other boy's nose was streaming blood, and he was clutching at his face and howling.

"What in Slytherin's pants is going on here?" demanded Fabian Prewett, giving Sirius a shake.

"He started it," said Sirius hotly. "He called --" He shut his mouth with a snap, horrified. In his anger, he had nearly revealed Remus's secret.

"I don't care what he called you," said Fabian. "What's gotten into the pair of you lately? You're supposed to be friends."

"He was being a tosser," Sirius frowned, sucking at the split in his lip. The fight had dissipated some of his anger. He wasn't ready to apologise to James yet -- not after the crack he had made about Remus -- but he felt better, all the same.

Fabian shook his head. "He's not the enemy, Black. Are you all right, Potter?"

"By doze," moaned James into his hands, sitting up.

Fabian knelt down beside him. "Let me see."

Gingerly, James removed his hands from his face. His nose was puffy and slightly off-centre. A river of blood continued to flow over his upper lip and drip from his chin.

"That looks bad," said Fabian. "I could try to fix it, but you're probably better off going to Pomfrey. C'mon, I'll take you."

He grasped James by the arm and pulled him to his feet. James followed him wordlessly, one hand still carefully cupped over his damaged nose.

"Go to your room and cool off, Black," the older boy advised him. "I don't like to take points from my own House, but if I catch the two of you fighting again, I will."

Sirius went, feeling embarrassed. He had not meant to hurt James. He wasn't even very angry with his friend anymore. James, with his broken nose, would probably feel differently, though. He might not even want to be friends with Sirius anymore.

Feeling gloomy, Sirius trudged up the stairs to their dormitory. He supposed he should go start looking for his wand, but he had no idea were to start, and no inclination to undertake the quest on his own.

Lacking anything else to do before lunch, and effectively prevented from visiting Remus by James's presence in the hospital wing, Sirius flopped down onto Remus's bed and rummaged through his friend's bookbag for the assignments which Remus had been unable to finish.

Remus's eyes did not seem to want to focus, which probably meant he had not slept for very long. He squinted at the dark-haired figure seated beside his hospital bed.

"Sirius?" he said groggily.

"No. S'me."

The voice sounded oddly clogged, and it took a few more blinks before Remus recognised his visitor as James.

"Oh. Hi. What happened to your nose?"

His friend touched the feature in question self-consciously. It was red and slightly swollen, with a crust of dried blood visible around his nostrils. "Sirius," he said.

Remus frowned, half sitting up. "He hit you?"

"We had a fight." James looked uncomfortable. "I -- look, I said something thoughtless about you, and I said it in the common room. It's OK," he added quickly, "no one else heard. But I just wanted to tell you I'm sorry."

"Oh," said Remus. "Um -- thanks. I'm sorry about Sirius."

James shrugged. "It wasn't your fault."

But Remus was not sure that was true.

"What time is it?" he asked.

"Getting on for afternoon break."

Remus frowned. He had got much less sleep than he'd thought. "Why aren't you in Defence?"

James rolled his eyes. "Long story. D'you want to come back up to the room before class lets out, or d'you want to wait for lunch?"

Tired though he was, Remus sat up and put his legs out of bed. Worry was rising in him, and he would not be able to sleep again until he did something about it. James helped him pull on his robes over his pyjamas, and when the matron appeared, saved Remus the trouble of arguing with her over allowing him to leave so soon.

"I really don't like this," she said, giving James the same look of frowning concern she had given Sirius earlier. "No one is supposed to know."

"It's all right, Ma'am," James told her as Remus clumsily stuffed his feet into his shoes. "He didn't tell us, and we won't tell anyone else."

Madam Pomfrey was not reassured, but there was little she could do, short of a powerful Obliviation charm, and she let them go.

James let Remus lean on his arm, and did not try to hurry him as they made their way back to Gryffindor tower. Nevertheless, Remus moved as quickly as his aching body would allow. Class would be out soon, and he wanted to be safe in their room before anyone might see him and ask awkward questions.

Sirius looked up in surprise when the two of them entered the dormitory. He quickly gathered up the books and parchment that littered Remus's bed to make room for him to sit down as James went to his trunk and began rummaging for clean, dry robes.

"Were you doing my school work again?" Remus asked.

Sirius nodded.

"You know you don't have to do that," he said, touched. "Dumbledore's fixed it so that I always have a couple of extra days to turn things in, if I need it."

"I know," Sirius shrugged. "I just didn't think you'd want to come back to it." He cast a sidelong look at James, who was busy pulling on fresh clothes.

"He's apologised to me," Remus said quickly.

Sirius scowled. "Did he tell you what he said?"

"It doesn't matter," Remus told them both. "We're friends, all right? Sometimes friends say or do stupid things they don't mean. He's said he's sorry, and I believe him, and now you're going to do the same."

Sirius looked momentarily confused.

"To James," Remus clarified.

Sirius bit his lip, which, Remus noticed, was puffy and had a split in it. "Sorry, mate," he said, eyes downcast. "I didn't mean to break your nose."

"All right, James?" Remus asked.

James nodded. "It's fine. Pomfrey fixed it in about a second."

"So ... we're good?" Sirius asked suspiciously.

"Of course we are," said James, putting out his hand. "Sometimes brothers fight, yeah? Anyway, Fabian and Gandolfsson are right; fighting with your friends is stupid."

Hesitantly, Sirius shook his hand, looking awed. "I'd hate someone for a long time if they broke my nose."

James grinned. "Then be glad I'm not you. I save my hate for things that matter."

"All right," said Remus. "If that's sorted, I want the room for a minute to talk to Sirius."

Both of them seemed surprised, but no one argued.

"I'll go find Pete," James said, moving towards the door. "We'll get a head start looking for our wands. See you at lunch," he told Sirius.

As the dormitory door closed, Remus gave Sirius a quizzical look. "What happened to your wands?"

Sirius grimaced. "Gandolfsson. We have to find them. It's our 'detention'."

"What've you done this time?" Remus asked wearily.

"It wasn't me. James shouted at Gandolfsson in class. Said he wasn't teaching us anything."

"But he took both your wands," prompted Remus.

Sirius shrugged. "He said he didn't like that we were fighting."

"I don't like it much, either," sighed Remus, leaning back against the pillows. Then he frowned. Turning his head, he sniffed at the pillowcase.

"Did you sleep here last night?" he asked incredulously.

Sirius blushed, looking down at his hands.

Amusement and annoyance warred with one another in Remus's chest, but his face concealed the struggle from his friend. Amusement won. Remus sighed. The truth was that he was very fond of Sirius, and no matter how ridiculously he behaved, Remus could never stay annoyed with him for long.

"It's all right," he said. "Could you not sleep?"

Sirius shook his head, but relaxed a little, reclining on the bed and propping himself up on an elbow.

Remus sighed. "I was afraid of this. How did you feel last night?"

"Weird," Sirius admitted. "Like, no matter what I did, I wanted to be doing something else. I couldn't sit still. Everything bothered me. I felt like I was going mad."

"So now we know you're tainted," said Remus. "The full moon is affecting your moods."

Sirius bit his broken lip again. "Is it always going to be that bad?"

"No." Remus gave him a tired smile. "You're just not used to it. The moon was at perigee last night, too. Sometimes that makes things worse."

"Perigee?" Sirius frowned at the unfamiliar term.

"It's when the moon passes closest to the earth in its orbit," Remus explained. "It swings in and out, but last night was the closest it got all year."

"Oh," said Sirius. "At first, I wasn't even sure I was tainted. I didn't notice anything for weeks."

Remus was starting to feel sleepy. "The moon was at apogee last month. It was a lot farther away."

"Last night," Sirius admitted, "I wanted to do something to help you, but I couldn't think of anything. Everything I did seemed useless. I was annoyed. And then, this morning, it seemed like you didn't even want my help."

Affection squeezed at Remus's heart. He reached out and patted Sirius's knee. "You are helping me," he assured him. "You're helping by keeping my secret. You take notes for me when I can't. Sometimes you do my school work, even when I tell you not to."

Sirius gave him a half-smile of acknowledgement. "I know, but that doesn't seem like much."

"You can help me by learning some self-control," Remus told him gently. "It wears me out, seeing my friends fight. I don't think I could bear it every month. And if anyone ever notices your moods changing with the lunar cycle, I could be in a lot of trouble."

The smile was gone from Sirius's mouth. "But you didn't do it."

"It doesn't matter," Remus shook his head. "The laws are made to favour people like your family, not people like me."

"That's not fair."

"Maybe not, but there's nothing you nor I can do about that."

Sirius looked at him. "You're angry. Because of me letting myself get tainted."

Remus shook his head. "Not angry. I just wish --"

"I'm sorry, Moony," Sirius said quietly, eyes dropping back to the bedspread. "I mean -- not completely, because I think I'll be able to help you more if we don't have to worry about that. But I'm sorry it's a problem for you. I didn't mean to give you more problems."

That surprised Remus. Sirius hardly ever said he was sorry to anyone for any reason, and he had already apologised once in the last hour, to James. He felt as if Sirius had given him an unexpected gift, and wanted to give him something in return.

"It's all right," Remus told him. "I know your heart is in the right place, Sirius. You're a good friend. This morning -- it's not that I don't want you around or I don't appreciate your help. I just get embarrassed, having people see me when I'm weak like that, or when I'm not in control."

"You're way better at control than I am," said Sirius. "You wouldn't have hit James, no matter what he said."

"You can get better at it. That would help me a lot."

Sirius flopped over onto his belly, chin cradled in his hands. "I want to be better, but I don't know how."

"Meditation helps a lot," suggested Remus. "Would you try it again?"

Remus's roommates had joined him for a handful of half-hearted meditation sessions the previous year, but in the end, sitting still and being quiet for extended periods had been too much to ask of his fidgety friends, and he had not argued when the rest of them had given it up as a bad job. Remus himself still meditated several times a week, sometimes on his own, and sometimes with Lily. He found that it calmed him before the full moon, and helped him to regain his strength after, besides improving his ability to focus his magic.

"I wasn't very good at it," said Sirius.

"I know it's not easy, but you'll get better with practice."

"It will really help?" Sirius asked. "This isn't just you looking for a way to shut me up for a while?"

Remus grinned. "It really will."

Sirius nodded. "Then I'll do it."

"Thanks. We'll start tomorrow," said Remus. "You should go down for lunch. I know you missed breakfast this morning. And I need to get some sleep if I'm going to help you and James find your wands before supper."

Sirius sat up. "D'you need anything before I go, Moony?"

Remus shook his head.

Sirius gathered up his bookbag and Charms text, and quietly padded out of the room, as if Remus were already asleep.

Remus got under the covers and nestled down into the pillow that still smelled like his roommate with a sleepy sigh. He was glad that Sirius wanted to change his behaviour. Remus hoped it was possible. If not, they were both in for a lot of trouble. For better or for worse, Sirius and his tainted blood were Remus's problem now.

Chapter Text

The wand hunt proved frustrating, even with Remus's help. Sirius and James both assured him that he did not have to come at all, but he insisted. Even though he was still groggy from his afternoon nap, Remus somehow ended up in charge of the search. It was he who suggested that the four of them begin in the entrance hall -- a useful central location -- and try the exercise they had previously used for discovering hidden magic.

"You know what your wands feel like," he told them. "You use them every day. Try to feel for that same energy."

It took a while, and there were several false starts and stops, before they began to sense the familiar tingle. But as they moved from floor to floor and wing to wing of the castle, it was nearly impossible to judge whether the faint vibration was getting nearer or farther away. Sirius was becoming annoyed, but stamped down on the emotion. Remus wanted him to learn control. Instead, he closed his eyes and reached out with his mind for what felt like the hundredth time.

By supper, they had not made much progress. Remus almost fell asleep over his soup, and Sirius and James took turns kicking him under the table every time his eyelids drooped. They ate quickly, skipping pudding, in order to have more time to search before curfew.

But it was no good. Their progress was even slower than before, and Remus, looking very pale, had to sit down and close his eyes every time they stopped. When he stumbled and James caught him, Sirius decided that enough was enough.

"We can try again tomorrow," he said. "We'll just keep using the school wands for now."

Professor Flitwick had supplied them with wands in Charms that afternoon, but school wands were as unsatisfactory in their way as school brooms were. The sooner they were reunited with their own wands, the better.

Back at the dormitory, James and Peter got out their school work. Sirius was just in the middle of making Remus a mug of tea when James gave a startled cry. Turning around, Sirius saw his best friend staring at the wand in his hand.

"What -- is that yours?" Sirius asked incredulously. "Where was it?"

"Under my pillow."

Peter gave a surprised huff of laughter, and Sirius rushed over to his own bed and yanked the pillow away. There was his wand. He snatched it up and flounced down onto the bed.

"I cannot believe we spent three hours looking for them, and they were here all along," said James, shaking his head.

"Gandolfsson probably thought he was being so funny," muttered Sirius. "What's he playing at?"

"It's probably his idea of an important lesson." Remus sat on his bed, wrapped in a blanket, sipping tea. "You know, 'don't ignore what's right under your nose,' or something like that."

"Well, why didn't he just say that?" Sirius complained.

"If he'd hidden them anywhere else, we would have been looking for a week at least," said James.

Sirius sneered. "Only because he never bloody taught us how to find things."

"He never teaches us anything," said Peter. "I don't think I've learned a single thing in Defence so far this year. Have you?"

"I've learned to keep my mouth shut," James smirked. "And I hope by now Black has, too."

Sirius shot him a dirty look. "Gandolfsson can't be bothered to teach us anything useful. The Prewetts won't let us into their stupid club. How can we learn if no one will teach us?"

"You could start your own club," said Remus.

James looked sceptical. "Who would join? Everyone who cares about Defence is probably already in the Prewetts' club."

"You really think you're the only ones below OWL year who care about Defence?" Remus asked. "If there was a club, I would join it."

"Me, too," said Peter. "And the Prewetts said Egbert Bones wasn't allowed into the advanced club because he's only a fourth year. I bet he would join."

"But we're only second years," said Sirius. "Who'd listen to us? Anyway, we don't even know what the rules are for starting a club."

Remus yawned and set his empty mug on the nightstand. "It shouldn't be hard to find out. McGonagall could probably tell you. You can ask her tomorrow, since you won't be busy looking for your wands."

"Just stand back and try to breathe through your mouth," Sirius whispered.

Remus's face had a faint greenish cast to it. "We're supposed to be working on this together."

"We are," said Sirius. "You took the notes and measured the dry ingredients, I'm chopping up the squidgy bits and mixing the potion. Eugh. Don't get too close to that," he advised Remus, pouring viscous fluid into the cauldron, "it's vile."

Their assignment for the afternoon's Potions lesson was to make a batch of Doxycide, after a particularly virulent infestation had been discovered inhabiting the Hogwarts guest wing. The potion was noxious enough to Sirius's nose. No wonder if Remus was feeling ill.

Sirius gave his Potions partner a sideways look. "If you have to spew, just don't do it in the cauldron, all right? This stuff is bad enough as it is."

Remus closed his eyes, panting through his open mouth, but valiantly managed to keep his lunch down.

After the lesson, James was impatient to get back to the dormitory. "It's not raining and there are still a couple hours of daylight," he said, practically dancing circles around his roommates. "This might be my last chance to get out and do some flying before spring!"

"D'you want to go outside, Moony?" Sirius asked.

Remus shook his head. He looked better than he had in Potions, but he still seemed exhausted and unwell. "I'm going to meditate for a bit," he said, voice barely above a whisper. "You can go. I'll be fine."

"It's too cold out for me," Sirius told James. "You go ahead; I'll see Moony back to the room."

"Pete?" said James.

Peter nodded eagerly, and the two of them ran ahead down the corridor, leaving Sirius and Remus to make their slower way back to the dormitory.

When they got there, Remus sagged onto his bed, closing his eyes.

"You sure you're up for meditation?" Sirius asked. "If you want to take a nap instead, I can always catch up with James and Pete."

Remus shook his head. "No, I'm just a little woozy. Meditation will help clear my head. You don't have to, though."

"Said I would, didn't I?" said Sirius, climbing up onto the bed beside him.

"All right." Remus drew his legs up onto the bed and turned to face him. "Do you remember how to start?"

Sirius didn't really. "We hold hands, don't we?"

"Sort of. Like this." He sat cross-legged, with his hands resting, palms up, on his knees.

Sirius mirrored the position, laying his own hand, palms down, on top of Remus's. As soon as he did it, it felt familiar. Maybe he did remember. "Like this?"

Remus nodded. "Now, close your eyes and just breathe."

He tried. He closed his eyes, inhaling slowly. He thought about their Doxycide, which had come out well. He thought about James and Peter, swooping across the Hogwarts grounds. He thought about Remus. His hands twitched.

"You have to focus." Remus's voice was rough but soothing, and held no trace of impatience.

Sirius opened one eye, and saw that Remus's were still closed. There was a serene look on his face.

"Empty your mind," the soft voice continued. "Think of something peaceful, if that helps. Still water. A tree on a calm day. The sound of your heartbeat."

Closing his eyes once more, Sirius tried to push away all thoughts about his day, his friends, their plans. Instead of thinking, he found himself listening. The only sound in the room was the quiet sigh of their breathing. As he listened to Remus's breath, slow and deep, his own lungs gradually fell into the same pattern. They breathed together.

"Good," murmured Remus. "Now I want you to remember what it felt like, searching for hidden magic, feeling for your wand. But this time, look inward. Find the magic inside you. Can you feel it?"

Sirius's eyes darted back and forth behind his eyelids, as if he were looking for something. "Where is it?" he asked. Did wizards keep their magic in their brains or their hearts or their bellies or somewhere else?

"It's not a place; it's part of you, in what people call the mind or the soul or the essence. The part of you that makes you Sirius, and not anyone else. The part of you that feels. Try to find it."

Sirius breathed again, looking inwards. He thought he knew now what Remus meant. When he was small, and first learning about the stars he and his family were named for, he had always imagined that they were stars, and someday, they would find their place in the night sky. Until then, they carried their light hidden within, secret.

There was something inside Sirius that sparked and sparkled and blazed with light. It had always been there, but this was the first time he had looked for it. A pool of brightness and warmth. He reached for it, and felt it flowing through him, down his arms and legs and up his chest to flush his cheeks with heat.

He could feel Remus's magic too, different but familiar, and close, just beyond the tips of his fingers. It was vibrant and powerful, almost like a living thing itself. Was it his tainting that made it possible for him to sense Remus like that? Or did his contaminated blood only make the sensing easier?

"Have you got it?" asked Remus's soft voice.

Sirius nodded, then remembered that Remus's eyes were closed. "Yes."

"Good. Now try sending a little of it out through your hands and into me. If it helps, imagine you're holding your wand, letting the magic flow through it for a spell."

Frowning, Sirius tried to nudge the rushing, sparkling light down his arms towards Remus, but it didn't seem to want to go. Urge and coax and push as he might, nothing seemed to be happening.

"I can't."

"That's all right. You don't have to get it the first time. I can show you what it feels like instead."

Hot, vivid energy poured in through Sirius's palms, and he yelped, jerking his hands away and rubbing them on his trousers. "I thought you said 'a little'."

Remus looked as if he were trying to suppress a smile of amusement. "It wasn't that much."

"Well, it felt like a lot." His body was humming with extra power, his heart pounding as if he'd just run a mile.

"Let's try a little spell work," said Remus. He went to his trunk and got out a candle, which he set on the floor, clearing the space around it. "Light it."

Sirius gave him an incredulous look. "That's first year stuff."

"Light it," was all Remus said.

He drew his wand and pointed it at the candle. "Incendio."

The wick flared up briefly before the whole candle dissolved into a puddle of wax, spreading over the stone floor.

Sirius stared at it in surprise. "What just happened?"

Remus's smile got away from him. "It's the extra power I gave you. You're used to only having your own. When you did the spell, you used a little too much, that's all. As you learn more control, you'll be able to conserve your magic and only use as much as you need. Let's try again."

He took a quill from his bookbag and set it on the floor.

"Come stand over here."

Sirius got off the bed and stood where Remus indicated, with the other boy standing close behind him.

"I'm going to help you direct your power this time," he said, using the same soft voice he had during meditation. He put his left hand on Sirius's shoulder, his right holding the wrist of Sirius's wand hand. "Now close your eyes and just breathe for a minute, like we did before."

Sirius closed his eyes, but somehow, it was harder to concentrate this time. Remus's breath, soft on the back of his neck, was distracting in a way that it hadn't been when they faced one another on the bed. His heart was still beating too fast to relax, and the extra power made him warm all over.

"Ready?" Remus asked.

"Sure," said Sirius, opening his eyes.

"All right. We're going to float the quill. This time, go slowly and only use as much as you need."

He nodded. "Wingardium Leviosa."

Slowly, the feather rose into the air. It hung there, vibrating.

He let Remus guide the actions of his wand hand, concentrating fiercely as the other boy murmured, "pull back," and "not so much," and "yes, just like that," in his ear.

The end of the quill went black, a wisp of smoke curling up from it, but still it remained aloft.

"Now we're going to set it back down," said Remus.

Slowly, he let Sirius lower his wand hand. The feather floated gracefully towards the floor. At the last moment, Remus let go of Sirius's wrist, letting him finish the exercise by himself. The quill dropped the last few inches, disintegrating into ash as it hit the floor.

"Sorry," said Sirius.

"That's all right," Remus told him. He sat down on the edge of the bed, looking pale. "I didn't expect you to get it the first time. But it might be better if you didn't try to do any spells on your own for the rest of the afternoon."

"Are you OK?" Sirius asked.

Remus nodded, flashing Sirius a tired smile. "Maybe I did give you too much. I'm not perfect at this stuff, either, yet. Was it boring this time?"

"No." Sirius sat down beside him on the bed.

"Did you learn something?"

"I think so. If meditation is so useful, why don't they teach it here?"

"Because it's not 'traditional'." Remus rolled his eyes. "It comes from Asia. You know how stuffy wizards can be about trying new things, or anything foreign."

Sirius nodded. "Where did you learn to do it?"

"I read a book about it. And my parents let me take a couple of classes over the summer. They were Muggle classes, but I still learned a lot."

"What do Muggles need meditation for?" Sirius asked, confused.

"It's not just for magic; it's good for mental focus and calm and all sorts of things," said Remus. "That's the end of tonight's lesson, I think. But I have an assignment for you."

"What?" said Sirius warily.

"Tomorrow morning in Defence, you're not going to let Gandolfsson get to you. If he does, don't let him see it. Just breathe like we practised, and keep quiet. Do you think you can manage that?"

"I'll try," promised Sirius.

Thursday Defence lessons were not as bad as Mondays'. The Monday classes were double lessons with Slytherin, but on Thursdays, the Gryffindors were by themselves, and the lessons only lasted for an hour. That did not mean the hour was necessarily pleasant, or that they were any less likely to wind up hexed in the hospital wing. James gripped his wand and grimly set his jaw, eyeing Gandolfsson with mistrust.

The Defence master floated on his carpet between the rows of desks. Students who knew what was good for them resisted the urge to lean away when he passed by.

"One should be wary of committing personal or vital information to writing, if at all possible," he informed them. "If it is unavoidable to do so, one should use circumspect language. Who can tell me what that means?"

Remus and Lily Evans raised their hands. As usual, Gandolfsson ignored the red-headed girl.


"It means talking around a thing, not mentioning it directly."

"Exactly so." Gandolfsson nodded. "For example, instead of using someone's name, I could say, 'the fool with the spectacles,' or 'the red-haired know-it-all'."

Gandolfsson did not look at James as he said this, but he felt the intended sting nevertheless, and gripped his wand even harder. Three seats away, Evans scowled, her lips pressed together in a McGonagallishly thin line.

The Defence master was still hovering in front of Remus, who stared steadily back at him, a look of nothing more than polite attentiveness on his face.

"It's nice of you to join us today, Lupin," said Gandolfsson. "Just because you have one of the more promising minds at this school does not mean you can skive off my classes whenever you like."

"I was ill, Sir," said Remus blandly.

Remus was only a hair too slow getting his wand up before the chair went spinning out from under him, and he sat down hard on the floor.

Gandolfsson looked down at him disdainfully. "Someday, when you're an Auror, boy, you'll discover that sick leave is a luxury fit only for weak and unnecessary people. You won't get time off for anything short of grave injury in the line of duty. Anything less than that, and you keep going, understand? You can rest when you're dead. Don't miss another."

Only the slight tightening of the corners of his mouth betrayed that Remus had any feelings at all about Gandolfsson's words. "Yes, Sir."

James glanced sideways at Sirius, who had barely moved during the confrontation. His friend sat up straight, facing forwards. His jaw looked as tightly clenched as James's own, but apart from that, his face bore no expression. Gandolfsson seemed to notice this as well.

"Nothing to say, Black?" he asked.

Sirius breathed in deeply through his nose. "No, Sir."

"I see you and Potter have your wands back. How long did it take you to find them?"

James scowled, but all Sirius said was, "Only a few hours, Sir."

The Defence master narrowed his eyes, taking in Sirius's impassive face. "Did Lupin help you, or did you do it all by yourselves?"

"Remus helped, Sir."

"Fair enough," Gandolfsson nodded. "If Lupin has the patience to teach you a thing or two, you should stick with him. Maybe you won't end up a complete no-hoper."

Another breath. "Yes, Sir. I'll do that."

"Good," said Gandolfsson. He turned away and began moving through the class again. "It's good to keep written and spoken communication to a minimum. The best wizards learn to do magic silently, as well. Having to shout out spells all the time can cause one to lose a split second's advantage, or force one to give away one's location. Children of your age lack the discipline for silent magic, of course, but I hope to instill its importance in those of you who live long enough to attempt it.

"While I may not be able to make you any quieter, I can try to teach you to be unheard. To that end, today we will be learning the Imperturbable Charm, which, when performed correctly, can prevent eavesdropping."

The rest of the lesson passed without so much as a mutter or belligerent glance from Sirius. James was amazed.

"Who are you and what have you done with my best mate?" he demanded as they left the classroom, heading for Herbology.

"I'm just trying something Moony suggested," said Sirius, looking pleased with himself.

Remus clapped him on the shoulder. "Well done."

Sirius grinned. "I still wanted to punch him, though."

"There's nothing I can do about that, mate," said Remus, smiling grimly, "but you weren't the only one."

In spite of the fact that it was the other three who spent the most time talking and making plans for their proposed Defence club, it was Remus who ended up going to McGonagall to find out the rules and pick up the proper forms. When he came back to the dormitory with them, the others were waiting for him.

James tapped on a bedpost with his wand. "I hereby call the first official meeting of the Future Aurors Club to order."

"We're not official yet," Remus pointed out, waving the still-blank forms under his nose. "And we're not calling ourselves that. Not everyone who wants to learn Defence is planning to be an Auror."

"What else do we need besides a name?" asked Sirius, peering at the form over Remus's shoulder.

Remus looked at his notes. "We need to arrange a location and regular meeting times. Once a week would probably be good to start with. Since it's an academic club, we can get special permission from our Head of House to meet after supper if that ends up being the best time. Oh, and we can't exclude members on the basis of House or personal preference." He gave James and Sirius a meaningful look. "If Slytherins want to join, they can. Even Snape."

"As if he'd want to," muttered Sirius. "Tosser."

Remus ignored him. "All we really need to do is pick a time for the first meeting, get McGonagall's permission to use a classroom, and start inviting people."

"And we still need a name," James reminded them, "seeing as you didn't like my brilliant suggestion."

"What about the Hogwarts Defence Club?" suggested Peter. "It's simple and it does exactly what it says on the tin."

"Boring name," said Sirius. "We could be the Daring Defenders or something like that."

Remus laughed. "That makes us sound like comic book super heroes. Pete's right; we should give it a name that tells people what we do. What about the Junior Defence League?"

James nodded thoughtfully. "That's good. Simple but not boring. OK."

"We should vote on it, if we're going to be an official club," Remus pointed out.

"Right," said James. "All in favour of 'Junior Defence League' say 'aye'."

"Aye!" declared four voices.

"The motion carries," said James, plucking the form from Remus's hands and filling in the blank space at the top. He signed his name at the bottom where it said "founding members", and passed it around to the others.

He and Sirius grinned at one another in excitement. They were finally doing something.

Chapter Text

The first actual official meeting of the Junior Defence League was held on the first Friday afternoon in December. Things got off to a rocky start. James and his friends were gathered in the disused classroom, along with Egbert Bones, who had brought a third year Ravenclaw named Indira Patil, when Lily Evans walked in.

"What are you doing here?" asked James, surprised.

Evans gave him a cold look. "Remus invited me, Potter. It's a school club; anyone can join."

"Now there's an odd number," complained Sirius. "We can't do dueling practice with seven people."

"It's fine," Remus told them. "We'll take turns if we have to. I'm glad you decided to come, Lily."

"Sounds like you're the only one," said Evans. "If your friends want people to join their club, they could try being a little more friendly. Tildy Hathersage wanted to come, too, but she wasn't sure she'd be welcome." She glared meaningfully at James.

His ears grew hot. Since Hathersage had beaten him at the Quidditch tryouts, James had caught her casting him bewildered, unhappy looks on a few occasions. He knew he had been rude to her, but he did not know how to make a proper apology to someone he liked, but did not know well, so he had settled on ignoring her.

"If she decided not to come, that's her problem," he mumbled.

"Anyone who wants to learn more Defence is welcome to join," Remus said firmly.

When Dorcas Meadowes appeared a moment later, hovering shyly in the doorway, the problem of the uneven numbers became moot.

"So what are we going to do?" asked Patil.

James shrugged. "You know, hexes and things."

"You don't have a plan?" said Patil incredulously.

James exchanged a dismayed look with Sirius. It had never occurred to him that they would need to plan what the Defence club did. They would do Defence, wouldn't they?

"Why don't we start with the basics for today?" suggested Remus. "Shield charms and Disarming. It's good practice, and once we have an idea where everyone is with those, we can move on to other things."

James flashed him a grateful smile. "Yeah, that sounds good."

They paired up, James with Sirius, Remus with Peter. Evans and Meadowes worked together, and Bones faced off against Patil. Soon, the room echoed with shouts of "Expelliarmus" and "Protego". James and Sirius whipped there wands at one another at lightning speed, dodging back and forth, trying to get a spell around one another's defences. Sirius got James's wand away from him once, but that was all right, since James managed to disarm him twice.

After a few minutes, Remus waved for the group's attention. "Let's trade partners," he said. "It's no good always working with the same people. If we get too comfortable, it makes us sloppy. We should be prepared to defend ourselves against anyone, right?"

This time, James found himself paired with Egbert Bones. He was a quiet, serious boy who was quick with his wand. To James's consternation, Bones managed to disarm him three times in fairly quick succession, forcing him to focus on his Shield charms, rather than try to disarm the older boy himself.

By the end of the hour, James had faced off against each of the other club members, and was feeling slightly better about his skills. He had managed to disarm everyone at least once, apart from Remus and Bones.

"That was good," said Remus. "Maybe next time we can work on some jinxes."

"When is next time?" asked Patil. "Friday afternoons aren't always good for me; sometimes there's extra Quidditch practice."

Remus glanced at James, who shrugged.

"What about Friday evenings after supper?" Remus suggested. "We can get permission from our Heads of House, since it's for an academic club. Does that work better?"

Patil nodded.

"We should all try to invite more people next time," said James. "Eight isn't much of a club."

Remus agreed. "At the next meeting, maybe you can ask everyone what they want to learn, and make a plan for the club based on that."

They called the meeting to a close, and went their separate ways to get ready for supper.

"That was brilliant!" declared Peter, practically skipping as they exited the classroom.

James couldn't help grinning. His club was going to be a success.

The following week, James was still in high spirits. He had received an owl from home saying that his father was finally well enough to return to work, Ravenclaw had resoundingly thumped Slytherin in Saturday's Quidditch match, and more than a dozen people showed up for the second meeting of the Junior Defence League, including everyone who had attended the first one. Having so many pairs of eyes fixed expectantly on him made James feel ten feet tall.

"Defence is probably the most important thing we'll learn at Hogwarts," he began. "But how can we learn anything when we have a rubbish teacher like Gandolfsson?"

There were a few nods and murmurs of assent. James tried very hard not to smile as he continued.

"So I -- Sirius and I -- decided to start this club so we can learn some proper Defence. If you're here, I guess that means you want to as well. So, what do people want to learn?"

"Hexes!" said Sirius.

"Jinxes!" called someone else.

"Curses!" said a girl's voice from the back.

James just barely saved himself from rolling his eyes when Remus raised his hand. Did he think they were in McGonagall's classroom? "Yes, Remus?"

"I was just thinking," said Remus quietly, and the others fell silent to hear him, "hexes and things can be really good to know. There are some useful ones. But shouldn't this club be about the kind of magic that's going to keep us alive? I can't think of many hexes that would save a person's life in a tight spot."

"I guess," allowed James, feeling the first prickles of disappointment. If they weren't going to learn hexes, the club might end up just as boring as all their other lessons.

Alice Finch, a third year Gryffindor, raised her hand, and James nodded to her. "I'd like to learn about the hiding magic Gandolfsson talked about. That sounds really useful."

"I want to practise what to do if you have to face more than one person at a time," said Indira Patil.

"I want to learn how to tell if someone is under the Imperius curse," said Egbert Bones.

"I want to learn silent magic," said Lily Evans.

James felt overwhelmed. He didn't know the first thing about any of the magic people seemed interested in learning. He didn't realise he was giving Remus a pleading look until his friend was beside him, raising his hands for quiet.

"We can learn all that stuff," Remus assured them. "But one thing at a time. We're all going to be learning from each other, so if there's something you want to learn, you might have to do some reading and practise on your own, then come here and teach us. Does anyone know a useful spell they can teach the rest of us this week?"

"I can do the Confundus charm," volunteered Finch.

Remus gave the girl a rare smile. "I don't think I know that one. Anyone want to help Finch demonstrate a Confundus charm?"

No one came forwards.

"What does it do?" asked James warily.

Finch rolled her eyes. "I promise it doesn't hurt, and it wears off after five or ten minutes."

"Oh, for heaven's sake!" declared Evans. "I'll do it, Alice."

She marched to the front, pocketing her wand. James and Remus stood to one side as the two girls faced off against one another.

"Ready?" Finch asked.

Evans nodded. "When you are."

Finch raised her wand and swept it around in a circular motion. "Confundo."

For a second, it looked as if the charm had had no effect. Then Evans blinked and shook her head. "I -- what --" She turned and stumbled, tripping over her own feet.

James moved forwards and caught her. "All right, Evans?" he asked, amused.

She blinked up at him, uncomprehending, then a slow, sweet smile spread over her face. "Oh. Hi, Potter."

James laughed and helped her into a chair which Remus had dragged over. "Here, have a seat until you're feeling more yourself. When the urge to hex me returns, you can rejoin us."

"That was really good," Remus told Finch. "A useful charm to put someone out of a fight without harming them. Can you show us the wand movement again? Then we can all practise it for a bit."

After a brief demonstration of the proper wandwork, they paired up into dueling partners, forming two lines, facing off across the classroom. Finch and Remus stood off to one side as the others took turns practising and deflecting the charm. When someone was hit, they would run down the line and catch them, moving them out of harm's way until the effects wore off. Soon a circle of Confunded club members, including Sirius and Peter, were gathered in a corner, giggling at one another and occasionally toppling over.

Once everyone had managed to Confund someone else at least once, Remus called a halt, and they took a short break to allow a handful of people to regain their equilibrium.

"It might be a good idea to have dueling practice as part of every meeting," said Remus. "That way, we can keep up on our Shields and Disarming, and practise the other things we've learned."

James nodded. "What if, next time, everyone tries to think of something useful they can teach everyone?"

"Next time?" squeaked Peter, alarmed. "You mean next week?"

Remus gave him a reassuring pat. "This isn't Defence class, Pete. You won't get marked down if you need some extra time. But maybe you'll be able to think of something by the time we get back from winter hols."

"Good club, Potter," said Egbert Bones as the meeting began to break up.

James swelled with pride. "Thanks."

"No hard feelings?" asked Indira Patil, who had managed to Confund James twice.

"None," said James, shaking the girl's hand. "I meant to say, great Keeping in the match against Slytherin. Nothing got past you."

Patil smiled. "Ta, Potter. We'll see how we do against Gryffindor next month, eh?"

"We'll see," grinned James.

They were discussing possible Defence spells for their third Junior Defence League meeting over breakfast on Wednesday when a cheer erupted from the end of the table. James and the others looked up to see the Prewett twins shaking hands and clapping one another on the back. A tawny owl was devouring bacon on the table between them.

"Congratulations, Uncle Fabe," said Gideon.

"And you, Uncle Gid," Fabian returned. "Party this evening in the Gryffindor common room," he announced down the table. "Everyone's invited."

"What's the occasion?" someone called back.

Gideon waved a small scroll of parchment in the air. "We have a new nephew. Charles Cedrellus Weasley."

The twins beamed.

"How d'you think they managed to get this much butterbeer together on such short notice?" Sirius mused, taking a swig of his.

James shrugged. "Maybe they bought it last time they were in Hogsmeade."

Peter nodded. "They had loads of stuff at their Halloween party, too."

"But there hasn't been a Hogsmeade weekend since then," Remus pointed out. "Aren't they meant to be going this Saturday?"

"True," said James, clinking his bottle against Remus's. "They must know a way of getting to the village."

"Think they'll ever get around to telling us all the stuff they said they would?" Sirius gazed moodily across the common room to where the Prewetts held court on the sofa.

"If they don't, I'm sure it won't take you and James long to figure out all the school's secrets for yourselves," said Remus, elbowing Sirius companionably. "You've a knack for sticking your noses into places they're not meant to be."

Sirius flashed Remus a smile. "You'll help, though, won't you, Moony?"

Remus rolled his eyes. "I don't suppose you lot will give me any peace if I don't."

"We already know how to find hidden things," said Peter, not a little proudly. "If there's a secret passage from the school into the village, we should be able to find it."

"Maybe," said Remus, "but only if the entrance is hidden by magic."

"We know there's one secret passage from the school grounds into the village," James pointed out.

Remus frowned, voice dropping to a whisper. "Well, the Prewetts aren't using that one, are they? And you can't, either. It's not just the willow; the house is all sealed up by magic at the other end. There's no way out."

"Can we see it sometime?" asked Sirius eagerly. "The house?"

Remus pressed his lips together, face unreadable. "You're not supposed to leave school grounds. I could get into trouble for showing you."

"Relax, mate." James tapped his empty bottle against Remus's knee. "We wouldn't do anything to get you into trouble."

"Right. Yeah," agreed Sirius without enthusiasm.

Remus split a sceptical look between them, but nodded his thanks, tilting his head back for a last swallow of his drink.

"Heads up, lads," muttered Peter, glancing over Remus's shoulder.

The others looked up in time to see the Prewett twins negotiating their way across the room towards them, hands full with more bottles of sweet, fizzy beverage.

"How goes it with our young protégés?" grinned Gideon as they handed the bottles around.

"Oh, are we still that?" Sirius snarked.

James shot him a quelling look.

"Congratulations on the new nephew," said Remus. "How's your sister?"

"She's doing very well, thanks," beamed Fabian, clinking his bottle against Remus's in a toast. "Motherhood suits our Molly, which is grand, since we do so enjoy being uncles."

Gideon nodded. "We take our duties very seriously. Who else will be a bad influence on her brood if we aren't? We've made a list of rude words to teach Billy over the Christmas hols."

"It's never too early to expand one's horizons," agreed Fabian. "Speaking of which, Lupin tells us you lads have started your own Defence club. Well done."

Sirius frowned at Remus, who shrugged. "I figured they could send people our way who aren't qualified for Advanced Defence."

"We will," Gideon assured them. "In fact, we have a list for you, too." He patted his pockets and came up with a short scroll of names, which he handed to James. "Those were all the ones we could think of. If any others come along, we'll point them in your direction."

James perused the list. Some of the names he recognised, others he didn't. All of them had a small letter beside them indicating which House each person was a member of. Two of them were Slytherins. James frowned. Remus had said that if Slytherins wanted to join the Junior Defence League, they could, and James couldn't see any way of stopping them, but that didn't mean he was going to seek them out and ask them to join.

He stuffed the note into his pocket. "Thanks."

"We're square, then?" asked Fabian.

James held out his bottle, and the Prewetts bumped it with theirs. It meant a lot that the older boys thought well enough of a bunch of second years to want to smooth things over with them. He kicked Sirius, who was still scowling, lightly in the ankle.

"Yeah," said Sirius, with a glance at James. "We're good."

Fabian smiled. "Glad to hear it. Tell us what you've been working on so far."

They entertained the twins for several minutes with tales of the club's inaugural meetings, Sirius unbending enough to be drawn into the conversation. He and James grew more and more animated until they were just barely prevented by Remus from demonstrating the Confundus charm on one another right there in the crowded common room as the Prewetts and Peter held their sides and roared with laughter.

"Well done, the lot of you," wheezed Gideon, wiping his eyes. "It sound like an excellent club. I'm sure you'll make us proud."

"Have you been doing much investigating this year?" Peter asked eagerly.

The twins exchanged a look.

"Not as much as usual," said Fabian, lowering his voice. "We've been doing a bit of work for Gandolfsson, though."

"Like what?" asked Sirius, brow furrowed, as James and Remus leaned forwards with interest.

"Just keeping an eye on -- certain people," said Gideon.

"Why?" asked James. "Does Gandolfsson think there are people at Hogwarts connected with --" his voice dropped to a whisper, "-- those Death Eater people?"

Fabian nodded. "There almost certainly are. Whether it's the people we're meant to be keeping an eye on or not, I couldn't say. And no," he added when Sirius opened his mouth, "we're not saying any names. We're just investigators. We tell Gand what we find, and let the Aurors decide what to do with the information."

"What will they do?" breathed James, captivated.

"We don't know and we don't ask," said Gideon.

"Aren't you curious?" asked Peter, eyes round.

"Of course we are," said Fabian. "But if you're going to be Aurors, you have to learn when to ask questions and when to take orders."

"What about you lads?" asked Gideon. "Been doing any investigating of your own this year?"

James shrugged, taking a swig of his butterbeer. "Some."

"Did you ever figure out who the Hogwarts werewolf was?"

Remus choked, spraying butterbeer over his knees. "What?" he gasped.

Sirius and Peter exchanged a panicked look.

"Oh," said James, thinking quickly. "It was just a thing from when we broke into Pomfrey's office last year. I thought we told you about it. Didn't we decide it was that Slytherin bloke? Goyle?"

"Oh, right," said Fabian, looking back and forth between the four of them. "I guess that would make sense."

"Anyway, he's left now," James continued, "so I guess it doesn't matter, right?"

"Right," agreed Gideon, casting his brother a significant look.

Sirius and Peter seemed suddenly very interested in the remaining contents of their bottles, and Remus disappeared, muttering about needing the loo.

"So," said James, quickly changing the subject, "what do you think of Gryffindor's chances at Quidditch this year?" He dearly hoped the Prewetts were too busy to start an investigation of their own.

Chapter Text

"They're going to figure it out," insisted Remus. "They're too clever not to."

"They won't," Sirius soothed. "It'll be fine."

"They will." Remus was in no mood for baseless assurances.

"They might," said Peter.

"Shut it, Pete," snapped Sirius. "You're not helping."

James shot his best friend a quelling look. "The Prewetts aren't going to figure it out, Remus. And even if they do, they won't tell anyone."

"Won't they?" said Remus darkly. "'Oh, Lupin's a werewolf? How interesting. I wonder what's for supper today?' Is that how you think they'll react?"

"No." James made a face. "But they know you, and they know Pomfrey knows, and if Pomfrey knows, then Dumbledore has to know, and if Dumbledore knows, then they'll know it's fine, won't they? They know all kinds of secrets, and they don't blab them all over the school."

"This is different," said Remus. "It's not Flitwick's romance novels; it's a Dark creature mixing with people's children, pretending to be one of them."

"You are one of them," insisted Sirius hotly. "If the Prewetts ask us, we'll tell them --"

"You'll tell them what? You can't tell them anything, because you're not supposed to know anything. There's not supposed to be anything to know." Remus rubbed his temples. The December moon was still five days away, but already he felt a headache coming on.

"If they ask us," said James, "we'll tell them that, whatever they think they know, you're our friend, and anyone who wants to give you trouble has to get past us first."

Remus sighed. "It's not that I don't appreciate the thought, James. It's just -- people aren't supposed to know. The more people who do, the more chances there'll be trouble."

"Nothing is going to happen," Sirius told him. "It'll be winter hols soon. By the time we get back, they'll have forgotten all about it, and found ten new things to investigate."

Remus was not convinced. As the days passed, his paranoia only grew. By Friday evening's Junior Defence League meeting, he was a nervous wreck, jumping at every loud noise, and relying solely on Shield charms to keep himself in one piece during dueling practice.

"You can't win a fight playing defence," James reminded him.

"I know that," grumbled Remus. "I just had a bad day."

He was doubly annoyed because it was the last League meeting before the holidays. The following Friday, everyone would be busy packing in preparation for the journey home. None of Remus's roommates were staying this year, though James and Sirius had been working out schemes that might allow Sirius to spend Christmas with the Potters.

Whenever the Prewett twins were nearby -- usually only during meals, and sometimes in the Gryffindor common room -- Remus could not help casting furtive glances at them. A few times, he caught Gideon or Fabian's eye, but they did not appear to pay him any more attention than usual. This did little to allay Remus's fears. He could not shake the sense of foreboding that lurked behind his every thought.

Meditation might have helped ease the tension coursing through Remus, if Sirius had not insisted on joining him for every session. He, too, was becoming restless with the waxing of the moon, distracted by every sound.

"D'you think you could maybe sit still for five minutes?" Remus snapped the third time Sirius shifted position, breaking his concentration.

Sirius stared at him, shocked by the uncharacteristic outburst.

"Sorry," muttered Remus, turning red. "It's just -- I need to do this."

"OK," said Sirius. He did not move again until Remus told him they were done for the afternoon.

Tuesday morning's double Defence lesson with Slytherin fell only a few hours before moonrise. In spite of the prickle at the back of his scalp and a ringing in his ears, Remus insisted that he was fine, but he didn't argue when James and Sirius made him sit between them. Not a word of what Professor Gandolfsson said to them managed to penetrate his consciousness. Remus spent the first part of the lesson with his wand clenched in his fist, wary eyes following the Defence master's every move.

When Gandolfsson flung a hex, Remus's reflexes were quick to bring his wand up, but his mind could not summon a single spell to his tongue. That did not matter, though, because James and Sirius were on their feet. Gandolfsson's wand flew across the classroom in a high arc, clattering against the wall. The professor summoned it back with a wave of his hand, dividing a hard stare between the three of them. They waited at silent attention for a sharp remark or snide comment, but instead the Defence master nodded.

"Not bad."

"Sir?" said James.

"A man's chances of survival are much better if he has people he can trust watching his back, Potter," Gandolfsson said. "Just make sure you never put your trust in the wrong person, eh?"

"No, Sir," James agreed, as Remus let out the breath he had been holding.

When Gandolfsson called for Defence drills, he said nothing to James partnering with Remus, leaving Sirius to work with Peter. James went easy on him, but even so, Remus could barely keep up. The room was too hot and his movements felt as slow as if he were underwater.

By lunch time, his vision was off. Everything was darker than usual and slightly fuzzy around the edges. Remus focused on his food, unable to concentrate on his roommates' conversations, and tried to shut out the clatter of the Great Hall. When he couldn't bear it anymore, he left, pushing open one of the oak doors in the entrance hall to slip out of the castle. As soon as he started down the stone steps, he knew he had been followed.

"I don't need minders," he grumbled.

"We're not minders," James told him easily. "We're company."

"Is there anything you do need?" asked Peter.

Remus sat down on the steps, closing his eyes and breathing in the cold, fresh air. "Sleep. I barely got any last night."

"Maybe you can grab a quick nap after Charms," Peter suggested.

Remus shook his head. "Moonrise is before half two today. I'm not going to Charms."

"That early?" said Sirius, shocked. "When will you be back?"

"Tomorrow sometime," Remus shrugged. Talking so casually with his friends about his other life felt surreal, but everything felt surreal to Remus at the moment. "Winter means long nights. I'll be out for eighteen hours or so."

"Merlin, mate," whistled James.

"Do you ever sleep?" Sirius asked. "While you're -- gone?"

"I dunno," said Remus truthfully. "It's hard to remember much. I don't think so, though." Wearily, he dragged himself to his feet. "I should go meet Pomfrey."

He left his friends sitting on the steps and went back into the castle. Maybe if he was early enough to his safe-house, he would be able to steal a few minutes' sleep back from the moon.

"I feel bad for him," said Peter. "You lads saw how knackered he looked. Can you imagine the state he'll be in by tomorrow?"

James nodded. "And he has to transform. Twice. Everything I've read says that's painful and exhausting."

Sirius didn't know if it was the moon itching him, but he couldn't bear listening to his friends pity Remus. "C'mon," he said, getting up. "We can't be here when Pomfrey brings him down. He'll have plenty of time to rest tomorrow."

On the second landing of the great staircase, he halted. "Bring my bookbag and Charms text down, will you?"

James rolled his eyes. "Yeah, fine. Just try not to be too late to class."

"I just want to make sure he gets there all right," Sirius excused himself as he turned and hurried towards the hospital wing.

He almost missed them. It was only by chance that he caught the flicker of Madam Pomfrey's Disillusionment charm on the stairs as he passed. Sirius kept going, pretending he hadn't noticed them, then doubled back at the top of the flight of steps to follow. Standing in shadow on the first floor landing, he watched the entrance hall doors open and shut, then ran the rest of the way to peer between them at the indistinct figures crossing the grounds in the weak winter light.

Sirius did not notice the other figure, striding up the path from the school gates, until he was almost to the steps. Hastily, Sirius stumbled backwards, away from the doors. As the newcomer entered, grim-faced, Sirius pretended to be on his way down to the dungeons. The man took no notice of him, breezing past to hurry up the steps.

Sirius followed at a slower pace, eyes fixed with intense curiosity on the back of the man's dark blue robes, until he turned off the main staircase. For a moment, Sirius considered following him, but he knew there was only one place in the school this particular man could be headed.

Sirius practically flew the rest of the way to Charms. He was out of breath when he slid into the seat beside James.

"The Minister for Magic's at Hogwarts," he hissed. "I saw him. He looked --"

"Five points from Gryffindor for tardiness, Mr Black," squeaked Professor Flitwick irritably, "and it will be five more if there's anymore whispering between you and Mr Potter. Each."

The Charms master went back to his lecture on charms for repairing broken objects as James raised his eyebrows at Sirius. Flitwick was passing around cracked bowls and goblets for the practical part of the lesson, when a Hufflepuff prefect hurried into the room and handed the professor a note.

"What now?" Flitwick gave a frown of impatience. He unrolled the parchment, and read it quickly. Then he read it again.

Sirius exchanged a wide-eyed look with James. Something had happened. Something big. Sirius gave a nervous swallow. His heart was pounding.

Clearing his throat, Flitwick looked up. "Class dismissed," he said briskly. "Leave your broken items on your desks and return to your dormitory immediately. Wait there for your Head of House." He turned and strode out of the classroom, the Hufflepuff prefect hurrying after him.

The morning light stabbed at Remus's eyes, making his head throb. His eyes and his throat both felt as if someone had rubbed them vigorously with sandpaper. He swallowed, wincing.

"Are you awake, Mr Lupin?" asked Madam Pomfrey's clipped, professional voice.

Even the tiniest of nods sent crashing pain ricocheting around inside Remus's head. A strong arm behind his shoulders levered him halfway into a sitting position, and the rim of a glass pressed against his lips. Remus took a few small, painful swallows of water.

"What time is it?" he rasped.

"Still early. I've only just brought you back. Did you sleep all the way?"

Remus was not certain whether his unconscious state could properly be termed sleep, but he did not recall the journey, so he merely nodded again.

Some mornings, when she could tell he had had an especially bad night, the matron was the soul of tenderness and concern. Today, she was all business, checking Remus over swiftly, and administering a few more sips of water before she breezed out, admonishing him to get some sleep. The privacy curtain swung closed behind her.

She probably has other patients, Remus told himself. He wondered again what time it was. He had checked his painstaking table listing sun and moon rise and set times only the day before, but his exhausted brain would not yield up the relevant information. Well past eight, he thought. Maybe even past nine. If it was, his roommates would already be in ... Transfiguration? That sounded right. Unless Sirius had decided to skive off again to visit him.

Remus was still listening for his friend's footsteps when he fell asleep.

Whispers woke him. Feeling little better than he had before, Remus blinked open grainy eyes to find all three of his roommates huddled at his bedside. It took a few more blinks to bring them into focus. When he caught sight of their faces, Remus's insides went cold.

"Who knows?" he wheezed, sitting up. The words clawed at his throat, and he began to cough. By the time Sirius got the water glass into his hands, his windpipe felt shredded.

"It's not that," said James as he drank. "There's been an attack."

Remus nearly dropped the glass. "Well, it wasn't me. Ask Pomfrey! I was in the house this morning when --" he broke off as another fit of coughing seized him.

"Easy, mate." Sirius steadied the glass in his hands and urged him to take another drink. "It was a Muggle village. And it wasn't werewolves. They don't know who it was yet."

"What happened?"

"It's -- just gone." James shook his head in disbelief.

Remus stared at him. "What d'you mean 'gone'?"

"Fiendfyre," whispered Peter, sounding awed and fearful. "The whole place was burnt to a crisp."

"It happened yesterday morning," James went on. "Hundreds of people are dead. Aurors are combing the place for clues, but there's probably nothing left. Fiendfyre doesn't leave much behind besides ashwinders."

"Your dad --?"

James gave him a thin smile. "He's fine. I had an owl at breakfast."

"They're not saying much else --"

Sirius broke off as the privacy curtain was yanked back, and the glowering matron appeared. "I told you boys to leave him be. Mr Lupin needs his rest. Off with you! And I'll be taking twenty points from Gryffindor."

As his friends made vociferous protests against such unfair treatment, Remus pushed back the covers and swung his feet shakily to the floor.

"And just where do you think you're going, young man?" asked Madam Pomfrey.

"I don't think I can sleep anymore, Ma'am. I want to know what's happening."

The matron's scowl deepened. "I'd force-feed you a Sleeping draught, if I thought it would have any effect on you, Mr Lupin." She took what looked like a series calming breaths. "Will you agree to stay put and rest if I allow your friends to remain?"

Remus thought about the long, cold, weary walk back to Gryffindor tower. "Yes, Ma'am."

"All right," said Pomfrey. "But I don't want to hear any noise, and you are to remain in that bed until I deem you fit to leave it, am I understood?"

Remus bowed his head. "Yes, Ma'am," he said again. "Thank you."

When the matron and her storm clouds had departed, Remus scrubbed his hands over his face, trying to form coherent thoughts.

"What time is it?"

"Almost lunch," said James, taking the bedside chair as Sirius flopped down on the bed across Remus's feet. "We've been trying to get in to see you for ages."

"We had to wait for Pomfrey to take a loo break," added Sirius, with the shadow of his usual smirk.

Remus frowned. He had assumed his roommates were on their post-lunch break. "Why aren't you in class?"

"Cancelled," said Peter. "Everything's off."

"OK." Remus pinched the bridge of his nose. "Tell me all of it, from the beginning."

There was not much more to tell. The halls of Hogwarts were alive with rumours, but most of them sounded like no more than wild speculation. The only one that seemed credible was the Prewetts' belief that the Death Eaters were behind the attack.

"Did the papers say where it was?" asked Remus.

All three of his roommates developed matching thoughtful frowns.

"England," said Peter with a shrug.

"Somewhere south," added Sirius. "I think it started with an H."

"No, a D." James tapped his fingers on his thigh. "Dun ... something. Dunmarsh. Dunwich. Dunhill ...?"

The cold feeling gripped Remus all over again. "It wasn't Dunheath, was it?"

"That's it!" said Sirius. "How did you know?"

Remus felt faint. "I've been there. It's not far from where I live. My family use the shops on the High Street." He could see the cobbled streets. The rows of shops and houses, products of different centuries. The people hurrying past. A little girl in a green coat who had said "hello" to him once. His mother smiling as she handed ice creams to him and Natalie.

"It's all right," said Peter. "It was just Muggles. They don't think any wizards were --"

"My mum is a Muggle," snapped Remus. He was halfway out of bed and reaching for his robes when James and Sirius grabbed him by the arms, restraining him.

"Your mum is fine," said Sirius. "Probably. They don't go to the shops every day, do they?"

Remus struggled weakly against his friends' grasp. "I need to write home. I have to check --"

"The common room is full of people," James told him. "If you go blundering through there, everyone will notice. They'll ask where you've been. Why you've only just heard. If you want to send an owl, let us do it for you."

Remus slumped, defeated, and let Sirius and James manoeuvre him back onto the pillows.

"All right," he said as his head gave another painful throb. "Get me parchment, quill, and ink, and a copy of this morning's Prophet. And tea. I'm going to need tea."

"Are you sure?" Sirius asked for the fourth time.

"Yes." Remus's voice was firm, but he looked as though he was about to topple over from exhaustion.

"You don't have to," James told him. "We'll tell you what he said."

"And we'll bring you food," offered Peter.

Remus bent to put on his shoes. "I know. I just can't bear the thought of waiting around the dormitory by myself."

Sirius understood that. The castle was buzzing with the news that Headmaster Dumbledore had returned from the Ministry of Magic that afternoon, and was planning to address the school over supper. Sirius would rather let Snape hex him than miss the latest report.

They were early to the Great Hall, but still among the last to arrive. With nothing to do but gossip for the past day, the Hogwarts student body were hungry for news. The usual chatter was muted, and nearly everyone shot expectant glances towards the high table. None of the Hogwarts staff had appeared yet.

Sirius kept one eye on Remus. His friend had barely slept two hours that morning. His eyes were bloodshot, with dark shadows underneath them, and his mouth was set in a thin, worried line. Remus had not heard from his parents yet, and could not reasonably expect an owl anytime before breakfast tomorrow. Sirius worried that Remus might not be able to sleep until he had word of his family.

What if Remus's mother was dead? What if someone Sirius was related to had killed her? He knew it wasn't likely, but it was possible. His extended family was large, and Sirius was all too familiar with their opinions on Muggles. Would Remus still want to be friends with a relative of his mother's murderer?

"Look at the Slytherins," James said in a low voice.

Sirius glanced across the hall to the green-draped table. To look at the students seated there, one might not know anything was amiss. Some shared the pensive, nervous expressions of those at the other three tables, but for the most part, the talk and laughter continued at its usual volume. Sirius scowled, but could not muster any real surprise.

"Tossers," he muttered.

The side entrance to the Great Hall opened and everyone sat up a little straighter as the Hogwarts staff filed in, led by a grim-faced Dumbledore. When he reached the high-backed chair at the centre of the staff table, he paused, and leaned to say something to Professor McGonagall. Her eyes went straight to where Sirius and his friends were sitting. She nodded and turned away.

Sirius felt Remus stiffen beside him as the Deputy Headmistress strode down the line of Gryffindors towards them, and thought he saw a flash of fear in his friend's eyes. His hand moved to squeeze Remus's forearm under the table, and did not let go.

McGonagall gave Sirius only the briefest of glances before bending to speak quietly to the boy beside him.

"At ease, Mr Lupin," she said. "The Headmaster has asked me to inform you that, as soon as he realised your family lived near the location of the ... incident, he had someone sent over by the Ministry to check on them. They are safe, and you should expect an owl from them shortly."

Relief swept through Sirius, and he let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding.

"Thank you, Ma'am." Remus's voice trembled slightly, and he appeared to be struggling for control over his face. Sirius's grip on his arm tightened. "Please thank the Headmaster for me."

She nodded and returned to the high table. Remus slumped in his seat, head bowed, eyes closed. Sirius thought he might be biting his lip.

"All right, mate?" asked James.

Remus took a deep breath, opened his eyes, and gave James an almost-convincing smile. "Yeah. Fine."

"Heads up, lads," said Peter. His eyes were fixed on the staff table, where Dumbledore stood, arms raised.

The Great Hall fell quiet.

"You will all have heard by now what has happened," the headmaster began solemnly. "Hundreds of people are dead. The village of Dunheath is no more. Some will call it a tragedy, a disaster. I will not. It was a willful and evil act performed by humans against their fellow humans. Men, women, children. People who were innocent of any wrongdoing, who had no means to defend themselves against such an attack. It was an act of cowardice. An act of fear."

Sirius heard a snort and whipped his head towards the Slytherin table, but he could not identify who had made the sound.

"Do you doubt it?" Dumbledore continued in a low voice. "Some wizards fear Muggles. Why? one might ask. Why fear someone who has no magical ability? The answer is that they have put their faith in the wrong things. People like to believe they are special -- blessed. Some wizards have decided that having magic makes them special, and that the more magical ancestors one has, the more blessed one is. Because of this, they fear that their offspring will fall in love, will marry, will have children with those less 'pure' than themselves. Such fears are more than foolish; they are dangerous.

"Beliefs about blood-purity have no foundation in reason. Witches and wizards born to Muggle parents are no less able than those born of ancient Wizarding lineages. They are no less intelligent. No less capable of kindness, nor love, nor bravery, nor wisdom. Witches and wizards have no greater capacity for any of those traits than Muggles themselves, though they lack magic, through no fault of their own. To treat Muggles as the 'other' breeds enmity and destruction, not only between magical and non-magical people, but between those magical people who see Muggles as fully human, and those who do not.

"Many of you have friends and relatives without magic. People whom you hold as dear as the friends whom you greet every day in the halls of this school. You already know the truth that some have yet to learn: we owe Muggles protection. It is our duty as witches and wizards. Because Muggles are as fully human as we are. Because our desires are the same, even if our abilities are different. Because Muggles cannot protect themselves from magical threats. Because, for our safety and theirs, many of them do not even know such threats exist.

"We have knowledge. We have power. If we do not use it for the good of our fellow man, then evil wins. Evil thanks us for our indifference and our silence, which allow it to carry out its goals, unhindered.

"I remind you all, once again, that you are safe within these walls. We value and protect all of our students equally. If anyone has information regarding the destruction of Dunheath, if you learn anything over the winter holidays, I urge you to take it to your Head of House, no matter how insignificant it may seem, no matter how you came by it. No harm will come to you. I and your Head of House will be the only people to ever know your identity.

"On a happier note, you will be pleased to learn that all classes between now and the end of term are cancelled. Those of you heading home for the holidays will take the Hogwarts Express from Hogsmeade on Saturday morning, as planned. And now, let us tuck into our too-long-delayed supper."

Food appeared on the tables as the headmaster sat, and conversation broke out once more.

"He didn't tell us anything," complained Sirius.

Remus shrugged. "Did you think he was going to name names?"

"He thinks someone at the school might know something," James pointed out, "or might be related to someone who does."

"Makes sense," said Peter. "All pure-bloods are related, aren't they?"

"You're a pure-blood," Sirius scowled.

"Yeah, but my mum would never do anything dodgier than buy discount potion ingredients, and my uncle likes Muggles," said Peter comfortably. "You're a pure-blood, too. So's James."

"I don't have any relatives closer than second or third cousins, besides Mum and Dad," said James.

Sirius said nothing, pretending to turn his attention to his food. He knew he was related to exactly the sort of people who might burn a Muggle town without a second thought, but he wasn't going to remind his friends of the fact. It did not improve his mood when Lily Evans moved down the bench to sit on the other side of Remus.

"I heard McGonagall," she said, hugging him fiercely. "I had no idea. Are you OK?"

"Yeah," replied Remus, returning the hug for what Sirius felt was an indecently long time. "Everyone's fine. It was just a bit close to home."

Girls, thought Sirius grumpily. Always hugging people.

"Will it be war, then?" asked a voice farther along the table.

"It's hard to say," Fabian Prewett frowned. "It's complicated, isn't it?"

"How do you mean?" asked a fourth year girl.

"Well," said Gideon, "usually when there's a war, it's one government declaring it on another. Sometimes, it's between different countries; other times, two rival governments fight for control of one country. In this case, even if the Ministry wanted to declare war, who would they declare it on?"

"The Death Eaters?" James suggested. "I mean, they have to be behind it, don't they? How many different groups of Muggle-hating wizards can their be?"

"The Death Eaters are a terrorist organisation," said Fabian. "They're very clever. They do everything in secret. No one knows who's in, who the leadership are, what the command structure looks like. They'll never come out in the open, except to attack people who can't fight back. They operate by fear, not by force, or by strength of numbers. It's almost impossible to wage war against people you can't even find."

"So what will the Ministry do?" asked Evans. "They can't just pretend it's not happening."

"They're doing things, Red. Count on it." Gideon flashed the girl a grim smile. "They're recruiting Aurors. Beefing up Magical Law Enforcement. Hiring spies. Paying informers. They'll gather clues, and eventually they'll track one of them down. Then they'll track down the rest of them, one, two, three at a time. If this is war, it's one that can only be won by stealth and cunning."

"Get ready to be sneaky, boys and girls," said Fabian. "You're probably going to need it before this is over."

No one felt much like going to their own beds that night. The four Gryffindor boys sprawled across James's bedspread in their pyjamas, talking in low voices. Remus had on the ratty brown jumper that had belonged to his father, which Sirius had noticed he sometimes wore when he needed extra comfort. Sirius was wrapped from head to toe in the red-and-gold striped afghan James's mother had knitted. Peter had just reluctantly returned his pet puffskein, Constantine, to its cage for the night.

"Why d'you think Dumbledore cancelled lessons?" James asked sleepily.

"Maybe he thinks everyone's too upset to concentrate," yawned Peter.

Sirius shook his head. "Maybe if wizards had died, or someone's family, but people aren't going to stay upset for long over a bunch of Muggles no one knew."

"Sirius --"

"I didn't mean it like that, Moony," he amended hastily. "I just meant it was a shock, but it didn't really affect anyone at Hogwarts."

"It could have."

"It didn't, though. You'll have an owl from home tomorrow, and you'll see your family on Saturday."

Remus sighed. "I know."

Sirius rolled over to look at him. "So why do you think classes are cancelled?"

"It'll be all hands on deck at the Ministry, won' it?" Remus's speech was slurred with exhaustion. "Th' people who teach here're some of th' best witches an' wizards in th' country. Maybe the Ministry's asked for their help. You know. Ideas and things."

"Yeah, probably," said Sirius. He glanced around. "I think we lost James and Pete."

"Gonna lose me, too, in a minute."

"Not yet, though?"

His voice must have betrayed something, because Remus's eyes blinked open. "'M still here. Everything all right, mate?"

Sirius looked down at his fingers, poking through the afghan's loose knit. "Yeah. Just thinking about things. Going home."

"Are you worried your family could be involved?"

"No. Maybe. Not Mother and Father. They'd never get their hands dirty. But some of my cousins -- My parents think that Voldemort bloke has the right idea. They'd probably pack me and Regs off to the Death Eaters for training, if they could."

"They might try." Remus gave him a sweet, sleepy smile. "But even if they did, James and I'd come find you and bust you out."

Sirius couldn't help smiling at that. "How would you find me when the Ministry can't track down a single Death Eater?"

"I always know where you are, when you're close by," said Remus. "You know that."

Sirius's smile faltered. He had known he could sense Remus, but he had somehow never suspected that the reverse was true as well. Remus will always find me. The thought was comforting.

Sirius's friendship with James was built out of laughter and competition and trying to top the last prank. Remus's friendship was quieter. It was made up of whispers, thoughtful words, and the occasional comfort of touch. Before Remus, Sirius had never realised those were things he valued, or even wanted. He was always safe with Remus. He could confess any worry, no matter how ridiculous, and Remus would never mock him.

"What if they turn me into one of them?" he whispered.

"They won't," Remus promised. "I know you. You'd never give up on a friend, and we'd never give up on you. Marauders look out for one another, right? As long as you're alive, all you have to do is wait. We'll be there as soon as we can."

Chapter Text

23 December 1972

Village Destruction Result of "Hooliganism" Says MLE
At a press conference this morning Magical Law Enforcement spokeswizard Cornelius Fudge declared Tuesday's attack on the Muggle village of Dunheath to be "nothing more than hooliganism". The press conference was held in response to rumours that the attack was an act of terrorism.

"No individual or group has claimed responsibility for the incident," said Fudge, "and no further leads have been uncovered. If you ask me, it was probably an accident. Someone trying a spell they did not have the ability to control."

In response to questions regarding public safety, Fudge said, "As far as we know, this was an isolated incident that got out of hand. Let's not overreact. Fiendfyre is notoriously difficult to contain. The perpetrator or perpetrators are likely just as shocked by the results of their careless actions as anyone. This department does not anticipate any further incidents."

When asked if there was any truth to the rumours that the organisation known as the Death Eaters might be responsible, or that the attack might be linked to the Easter Murders, Fudge dismissed the idea.

"The Death Eaters are a respectable organisation dedicated to the promotion of Wizarding interests, and Voldemort is a respectable wizard. There is no evidence connecting the group to any sinister activity or acts of violence."

The wizard styling himself Lord Voldemort, who is rumoured to be the head of the Death Eater organisation, could not be reached for comment at the time of this printing.

Muggle officials are reporting the incident as a "gas leak", which is the sort of thing that can cause a large explosion under certain circumstances.

James threw the newspaper down onto the coffee table with a frustrated sigh, slumping lower on the sofa. He had spent the entire journey from Hogsmeade to King's Cross that day hoping that, when he got home, he would learn some real information about Dunheath at last. But his mother had come alone to collect him from the station, and the reports in the latest edition of the Prophet were unsatisfactory when it came to details, or even hard facts.

"Will Dad be home soon?" he asked as they set the table for supper for two.

"Probably not," said Ellie Potter. "He hasn't been home before ten since Tuesday, and there's a lot to do if he wants to take Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off."

She did not seem worried, at least, as she had when his father worked field assignments. The life of a desk Auror held far fewer risks than that of an agent in the field.

When his mother asked him how school was going over supper, James found himself unable to answer. The disruption of the past few days had pushed all other thoughts out of his head. The routines that made up his daily life seemed very far away indeed. He asked his mother how things were at home, but his thoughts drifted immediately, and he barely heard her answer.

After changing into his pyjamas, James brought a Quidditch magazine down to the sitting room and read, or tried to, while his mother knitted. He fell asleep on the sofa, still waiting for his father to come home.

His mother woke him. "Time for bed, Jamie-lad. You'll see your papa in the morning."

He did not argue, but stumbled up the stairs to his room. Barbarossa, his mother's ginger kneazle, was curled up on his pillow. James shoved him off and burrowed under the covers. It felt strange to be in his old bed in his small room. He missed the dormitory and the soft sleepy sounds that meant his friends were nearby. Even Peter's snores would have been more comforting than the silence that hung in the air.

When Barbarossa hopped back onto the pillow and leaned his bulk against the side of James's head, James did not push him away. A thunderous purr erupted in his ear as he stroked the cat-like creature's ginger fur, and he fell back to sleep with an arm curled around the warm, furry body.

"Your father is sleeping," Ellie Potter told her son the next morning when he arrived in the kitchen for breakfast. "He didn't get in until almost midnight, so we'll let him rest a bit longer."

After breakfast, James went back up to his room and rattled desultorily around until his mother informed him that if he could not be quiet, he could come downstairs and help out with the washing-up. They were putting away the last of the plates when Joe Potter finally made his appearance.

"Happy Christmas Eve, Son," he said, giving James a hug and a tired smile.

James watched his parents covertly as his mother set breakfast for his father. He was still uncomfortably aware of their age, but they seemed better than they had the last time he was home. His father did not look as if every movement hurt, at least.

"If your father needs anything else, be a dear and fetch it for him, Jamie," said his mother. "I'm for a bath."

James nodded, and sat in silence as his father paged through the morning edition of the Prophet.

Joe Potter appeared no more impressed with the paper's reporting than his son had been the previous evening. "Useless," he muttered with a sigh and a shake of his head.

"Is there anything new about Dunheath?" James asked.

"No," said his father irritably, "and there won't be, either. Magical Law Enforcement have called off the investigation. They think it's a waste of the Auror Office's time."

James stared at him. "So it was nothing? Just an accident, like that Fudge bloke said?"

Joe Potter shook his head again. "Impossible to say, without a proper investigation. But no, I don't think it was an accident."

"Did you see the village?" asked James.

"No. Not directly, at least. Until they assign me a new partner --" he sighed. "And maybe they won't. I think they're putting me out to pasture."

"They can't do that! You're one of the best Aurors in the whole place!"

Joe smiled. "I appreciate the vote of confidence, Son, but the people in charge of these things disagree. Magical Law Enforcement thinks the Auror Office is obsolete. They've treated us like a minor appendage of theirs for years."

James did not understand. "Professor Gandolfsson says they need Aurors more than ever right now."

"I don't know about 'more than ever', but I agree that we're still very necessary, and that there's a lot more we could be doing." He sighed again. "Maybe Gand can convince them. He's good at bullying people into doing what he wants."

"Isn't he at Hogwarts?" asked James, and immediately felt foolish. With classes cancelled, there was nothing to keep the Auror at the school.

His father confirmed it. "He's been the terror of the office again since lunch time on Tuesday. I think he sleeps there. Assuming he sleeps at all."

"Did they find out anything? Anything they're not saying in the papers?"

"You know I couldn't tell you if they did, Jamie," Joe admonished. "I can tell you that there's no way of proving anything, with no surviving witnesses. It doesn't take a skilled wizard to create Fiendfyre. Containing it is another matter. It doesn't leave much in the way of evidence, which is most likely why the Department of Magical Law Enforcement is downplaying it. They consider insoluble cases an embarrassment. If any wizards had been killed, it would be harder for them to sweep it under the carpet, but as it is ..." he trailed off with a shrug.

"Can't you do anything?" James asked plaintively.

His father shook his head. "Our hands are tied. If I were head of the Auror Office, maybe I could lean on them a bit, but the current head doesn't seem inclined to it. Unless something else happens, Dunheath is a closed case."

It was something of a Christmas Eve tradition for the Potter family to go for a walk together around the village of Godric's Hollow near sunset. Ellie Potter kept up a cheerful front, pointing out lights and decorations, but her husband and son remained sunk in distracted silence as they trudged through slushy, leftover snow. They greeted their neighbours automatically, with forced good cheer, waving to Bathilda Bagshot through the window of her warmly-lit sitting room. The walk ended at the Golden Griffin, where they enjoyed cups of hot mulled cider before turning homewards.

After icing the great cake and preparing the Christmas ham for baking the next day, Ellie Potter went up to bed, reminding them that if they did not sleep soon, Father Christmas might decide to skip them this year. It was a pleasant fiction which the family maintained, in spite of the fact that it had been three years since James had stopped believing.

In his room, James wrote a brief Christmas greeting to Sirius, and tossed Quaffle, the family owl, out the window, before changing into his pyjamas. When he went back downstairs, his father was still sitting on the sofa, staring into the fire with a tumbler of firewhisky in his hand, petting Barbarossa absently. It was a moment before he noticed that his son had joined him.

"Jamie," he said with a smile, startling out of his reverie, "I thought you'd gone to bed."

"Nah," James replied.

"I never asked. How are things at school?"

"All right."

"Are you keeping out of trouble?"

James shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He was not sure how much Professor McGonagall reported to his parents. "Mostly."

His father smiled again. "Mostly is good, as long as you're keeping up with your studies. Is Gand keeping you on your toes?"

"I guess."

Joe Potter's eyebrows rose. "What does that mean?"

"It's --" James frowned. He had not meant to air his grievances about the Defence master with his father, but when put on the spot, he could not lie about it, either. "He's sort of a rubbish teacher."

"He's an excellent Auror." His father's face betrayed none of his thoughts.

"But it's not the same thing, is it?" complained James. "It doesn't matter what you can do if you don't show other people how to do it properly, and he never does."

His father nodded. "He's used to working with people who already have their education, but he's not very patient with the trainee Aurors, either. Still, I hope you're learning something. Defence is important. Perhaps more so now than ever."

"D'you think there's going to be a war?"

"I hope not," his father sighed. "It was an awful mess last time, and most of that was fought on the continent. I shudder to think what it would be like with Britain as the staging ground. But men like Grindelwald don't come along often, thank Merlin. I'd be surprised if this Voldemort chap is half the leader he was. So far, it seems like the biggest danger is him not being able to control his own people." Joe gave his son a tired smile. "Try not to lose any sleep over it. But pay attention in Defence class, and learn what you can."

"I will," promised James. "But Gandolfsson doesn't think I'm up to much."

Joe's smile widened. "That's not always a bad thing. It can be an advantage, sometimes, to be underestimated, especially by one's enemies. Don't let them consider you a threat."

"Am I a threat?" asked James. "I don't feel like much of one."

"You are if you pay attention. Learn everything you can, and practise the things you learn as often as you can. Will you do that?"

James thought about his friends and the Junior Defence League. He thought about Remus's patience, and Evans and Bones and a dozen other students' determination to learn Defence. Children working as hard as they could to learn how to protect themselves and others, in spite of the fact that the man who was supposed to teach them precisely that did not think them worth his time. James was not certain that made them a threat, but underestimated they certainly were, and James knew they were capable of more than anyone thought.

"Yeah," he said. "I will, Dad."

His father ruffled his hair affectionately. "I know you will, Son."

It was a quiet Christmas at the Lupins' cottage. The family's holidays had all been small and quiet in recent years, but they had never been this tense. Even Natalie's usually-bubbly personality was subdued. The Lupins did not receive the Daily Prophet, but Remus read the reports on the Dunheath "gas explosion" in the local paper, and at night, he tuned in to the Wizarding Wireless Network, which was how he heard the Department of Magical Law Enforcement's official statement to the press.

It made Remus want to scream. The Ministry of Magic was utterly dismissive of any danger, but he could read the tight-lipped fear on his mother and sister's faces, and worry seemed to have aged his father ten years overnight. None of them were talking about it. They carried on as usual, playing old records of Christmas carols, making biscuits, wrapping the last few gifts, and putting the finishing touches on the small pine tree. Remus tried to push aside his anger, but it would not go away completely.

On Christmas morning, Remus unwrapped three new sets of school robes from his parents. His mother had sewn them by hand, and his father had spelled the fabric to resist stains and harsh potion ingredients. Unless someone looked closely, it was impossible to tell they were homemade.

"They still need to be hemmed," his mother told him. "I'm glad I waited. You've been growing again."

"Thanks, Mum," he said, hugging her. His old school robes had grown conspicuously short and shabby, and it would be a relief not to have to wear them anymore.

The high point of the morning came when Natalie unwrapped the red and gold scarf that Remus had owl-ordered for her.

"You're an honourary Gryffindor," he told her as she wound herself, beaming, in the soft, warm knit. "Brave and fierce."

"Is there anything you'd like to do while you're home for the holidays, Son?" Marcellus Lupin asked, once all the gifts were unwrapped, and they sat sipping hot cocoa beside the tree.

Remus hesitated, looking down at the mug in his hands. He knew that, once he asked, any illusion of a happy family Christmas would be over. But he could not remain silent on that account. It was too important.

"I want to go to Dunheath. I want to see it."

Natalie's eyes went wide, and their parents exchanged a look of alarm.

"No," snapped his mother, frowning. "It's not safe."

"It's no place for children," his father warned. "In any case, there's not much left to see."

"I don't care," said Remus. "I need to see it. I need to know what's happening. If you won't take me, I'll go by myself."

Marcellus Lupin gave his son a long, searching look. "We'll think about it," he said.

Dear Lily,

Dad took me to Dunheath. Nat wanted to come, too, but my parents wouldn't let her. They said she's too young. But so were the kids who lived there, and it didn't help them. You can't protect kids by not telling them things.

It was awful, seeing it. The whole village was burnt right down to the ground. You could see where the buildings were, and the roads, but everything else was just charcoal and ash. I can't even explain what it felt like, being there. I wanted to scream and hex things, but all I could do was look at it and think that the person who did it is out there somewhere, and they could do it again, and the Ministry is doing NOTHING. How can they act like this isn't happening? Like it was some freak accident?

I understand why wizards hate werewolves. I do. Werewolves can be dangerous. But sometimes I think they hate Muggles just as much. They hate anyone who's different from them. They don't need a reason.

Nat is so scared. She's brave, though, so she tries to hide it. I promised her I'd protect the family. Someone has to. Dad's not much of a wizard, beyond healing magic and household charms. The only really good Defence spell he knows is the Patronus charm. It's up to me to keep them safe, but I'm not ready. I don't know enough yet.

We have to get better. We have to become the best wizards and witches we can be. There's nothing that matters more than that. We need to learn everything we can. We need to stop them, whatever it takes.


Remus sat cross-legged on the floor in the narrow space at the foot of his bed, facing his sister, eyes closed, hands loosely linked together.

"Just breathe."

"Does it help?" she asked.

"It doesn't hurt," he told her. "It's good for calm and focus and for thinking about things clearly."

"You're not going to get into trouble, are you?" There was a sharpness in her tone that reminded him of their mother.

"I don't think so. Now, hush."

Obediently, she fell silent. For several minutes, Remus let himself simply exist. Air moved through his lungs. His heart bumped quietly in his chest. And under it all was the faint current of magic that flowed from his core to his head and fingers and toes. He focussed on the tingling of it, and opened his eyes. Letting go of his sister, he stretched a hand out in front of him, over the hair ribbon she had donated for the experiment.

"Wingardiam Leviosa," he whispered.

Slowly, one end of the ribbon rose an inch into the air, and hung there. Natalie gasped, and it dropped back to the floor and lay still.

"You did it, Remus! I didn't think you could do magic without a wand."

Remus tried not to feel disappointed. It was not a bad result for a first attempt. "The magic is inside the person. Otherwise anyone would be able to do it, if they had a wand. It's harder without, though. A wand focuses your energy. Without one, you have to focus with your mind. But it's really useful to know how, if you don't have your wand."

"Or if someone takes it away from you," said Natalie, biting her lip.

"Or if that," agreed Remus. There was no point in denying it. "Let's try it again. Close your eyes and breathe."

Peter was bored. His mother was even more anxious than usual. In the week that he had been home, they had barely left the house.

"It's only Muggles they're going after, Mum," he complained, but nothing he could say would sway her.

He tried reading the Daily Prophet to find out what was happening in the world, but it told him disappointingly little. Letters from his friends were better, but he had had few of those, in spite of having written to each of them multiple times. There had been one short letter from James, and two from Remus, one of them describing the devastation at Dunheath. Sirius had not written at all.

The highlight of his holiday had been a visit from his Uncle Constantine on Christmas Day. It was hard for Peter to believe that his mother and uncle were siblings sometimes, they were so different. Constantine was a jolly fellow, who delighted in giving gifts and cracking jokes. He had a vast and varied acquaintance, both among wizards and Muggles, and always had funny stories to tell about his friends.

"You should be more careful, Con," said Almira Pettigrew tartly. "It's dangerous to associate with Muggles these days, especially the sorts of Muggles you run around with."

"Those people will hate me no matter what I do, just for being who I am, and you know it, Mira," Constantine told her. "I'm not going to stop living my life for fear that someone else won't like it. We've spent enough time hiding and being afraid. What's the point of living if you can't enjoy it?"

It was an old argument. Peter knew that his mother worried about her brother. She had raised her younger siblings after their parents died, and had done her best to protect Constantine from a world that did not understand that he was not really a girl, and would no longer answer to the name "Constance". Almira Pettigrew loved her little brother, but she was a worrier.

"You won't enjoy it for long if foolhardiness gets you killed," Peter's mother said darkly. "Now, will you stay for supper or not?"

Constantine shook his head. "Some of my friends are having a party. You and Pete are more than welcome to come along, though."

"Can we please, Mum?" begged Peter. An evening spent with his Uncle's colourful friends would be miles better than spending one more night cooped up at home with his mother.

"I'll look after him if you don't want to come, Sis," Constantine promised. "You know I'd never let anything happen to him. He'll be perfectly safe."

Almira shook her head. "You can do as you like. I can't stop you. But I won't have you dragging Petey into risky situations, or filling his head with dangerous ideas. He's only a child."

"I'm almost thirteen," objected Peter. "I'll be of age in four years."

"A child," his mother repeated. "And you're not his father, Con. Until he develops a proper concern for how dangerous the world can be, he has no business being out in it."

Sirius lay on his belly, twisting the knobs of the transistor radio. Static. Twist. More static. Spin. A few fuzzy notes, but nothing more. He could never seem to find a clear station in the house. Sometimes the radio worked when Sirius took it into the back garden, but today, with grey sleet slapping down from the sky, that was not an option. Sirius growled in frustration.

If he could not find Muggle music, he wanted to at least hear what was happening on the Wizarding Wireless Network, but his parents had taken his wand on his first day home, telling him that he could have it back when it was time to return to school. His owl, too, had been locked away until the end of the holidays. His mother had passed on a short, unhappy note addressed to him from Peter, but if his other friends had written, their letters had not made it to Sirius.

"Aren't you dressed yet?" Regulus stood in the bedroom door, looking stiff in his new dress robes. "Mother and Father say we're leaving in ten minutes."

"I never asked to go to any stupid New Years party," grumbled Sirius, getting up off the floor and rummaging through the wardrobe.

He pulled his own grey velvet dress robes on over the tee-shirt and denims he had been wearing to annoy his parents, but did not bother to comb his hair before slouching down the stairs after his brother. His parents gave him a disapproving look, but made no comment as they cast Floo powder onto the parlour grate.

A moment later, they stepped out onto the hearth rug of a large, well-lit room, its walls lined with shelves of books. A tall, dark-haired young woman greeted them.

"Aunt Walburga! Uncle Orion! And my dear little cousins," smiled Bellatrix Lestrange.

"Bella," said Sirius's mother, embracing her. "What a lovely home you have."

It was exactly the sort of gathering that Sirius loathed. The adults stood around in groups, discussing business, politics, and current events, in the case of the men, while the women seemed to talk of nothing but clothing, household charms, and who had the best house elf. The younger guests had formed a pack at one end of the dining hall. Most of them were Slytherins.

"Come say hello to your little classmates," sparkled Bellatrix, clamping a hand each on Sirius and Regulus's shoulders, and steering her reluctant cousins across the room.

A few people greeted Sirius. They knew better than to appear openly hostile towards their hostess's family. Sirius gave them no more than a grunt in reply. A dark-haired young man of around Bellatrix's age had his sleeve rolled up, showing off a tattoo on his forearm of a skull with a snake protruding from its mouth. Evan Rosier and Rabastan Lestrange gazed with open admiration. Sirius privately thought that it looked ridiculous.

"Put that away," Bellatrix hissed. "This is not the place."

The young man rolled his eyes, but also rolled down his sleeve. He came over and shook hands with Sirius and his brother. "Antonin Dolohov," he introduced himself.

"That's a spiffing tattoo," said Regulus.

Dolohov grinned. "Thanks. I think they're going to be all the rage soon. Maybe you should think about getting one."

Regulus shook his head. "Mother would hate it."

That made Dolohov laugh. "What about you -- Sirius, was it?"

"I'd want something cooler than some old skull with a snake," said Sirius.

Dolohov raised his eyebrows. "Like what?"

Sirius shrugged. "Maybe a werewolf."

"That's unconventional," Dolohov said. "But you're what? Ten? You still have a few years to think about it."

"I'm twelve," Sirius informed him.

"I just turned eleven," volunteered Regulus.

"Plenty of time to consider your future," said Dolohov. "Are you in Slytherin?"


"It happens sometimes," Dolohov said with a shrug. "No reason why we can't all get along."

The other Slytherins, standing nearby, did not look as if they agreed with this sentiment, and neither did Sirius. When Dolohov moved off to rejoin the adults, Sirius was relieved. The man's too friendly attitude made him uncomfortable.

"I'm going to go see if I can find out anything about Dunheath," he told Regulus.

Rosier overheard him. "What about Dunheath?"

"Just whether there's any more news on what happened," said Sirius. "Why? Do you know anything about it?"

"I know what everyone knows. Well, everyone but you, apparently, Black," Rosier smirked. "It was just an accident. It's in all the papers. Or didn't you think of checking there?"

Sirius flushed. He had tried to get hold of the Daily Prophet since coming home, but his parents had cancelled their subscription, saying it was turning into a pro-Muggle propaganda rag.

"It wasn't an accident," he scowled. "Things like that don't just happen. Someone did it. Do they know who yet?"

Rosier shrugged. "Who cares? It was just a bunch of Muggles. Good riddance, I say."

"So that's it then?" sneered Sirius. "That's the plan? This Moldywart bloke and his Death Suckers are just going to murder every Muggle, and you're going to stand in the sidelines and cheer them on?" Regulus was tugging urgently at his sleeve. Sirius ignored him.

Rosier frowned. "No one's saying they're behind it, Black. But yeah, whoever it is has the right idea. A world with fewer Muggles in it sounds all right to me." The Slytherins bunched behind him nodded, muttering agreement.

"You're a weird one, Black," said Rabastan Lestrange. "You'd be top of the heap in a world like Voldemort talks about making. You'd have everyone bending over backwards to do things for you. Why wouldn't you want that?"

Rosier rolled his eyes. "Soft in the head is what he is. It's wasted on him. He belongs in Gryffindor with the rest of the blood traitors.

Sirius's hands rolled into fist. "I'd rather be a blood-traitor and a Gryffindor any day than a smelly, slimy Slytherin snake."

If any of them had had wands, the situation might have spiraled out of control very quickly. As it was, Orion Black stepped in, stunning his son and dragging his limp form off of Rosier. Stiff and tight-lipped, he and his wife apologised to Bellatrix and Rodolphus for the disruption to their party, and promised that they and Evan Rosier could expect a full apology from Sirius in writing the next day.

Sirius was just beginning to regain control over his limbs when they arrived home. He steadied himself on a chair in the parlour, staring down his parents with dislike.

"What are you going to do to me?" he asked, defiant. "Spank me? Send me to bed without supper?"

"We are going to talk to you," said his father coolly. "Regulus, go to your room."

Regulus fled, and Sirius slumped into the chair.

"Talk, then."

"We are disappointed." Orion's voice was low and even. "That was unbecoming behaviour for a son of the House of Black."

"It was humiliating, is what it was," snapped his mother. "Brawling like a common Muggle in front of half the family! What must they think?"

"I don't care what they think," Sirius sneered.

"That's clear enough --"

"I'll handle this, Walburga."

Sirius and his father scowled at one another.

"It's those friends of yours," said Orion. "You were never this intractable before you started school. One can tell a great deal about a man by the company he keeps. You have allowed yourself to be unduly influenced by a bad element. They are turning you against your family and your peers, making you sullen and ill-tempered." He sighed.

"It's not that we don't want you to have friends, Son," he continued, voice reasonable. "As long as they are the right sort of friends. Pettigrew is all right. He comes from good family. Your mother and I have no issue with him. Potter -- his father has a good reputation with the Ministry, so we gave him the benefit of the doubt. But his mother -- who knows what's lurking in her people's background? Or what foreign ideas she's raising her son with?" He shook his head. "And then there's that Mudblood boy. Lauren? Llewelyn? Your time is valuable, Sirius. You don't need to be wasting it on people like that. We can only smooth the path for you so much. If you want to rise in the world, you have to meet us halfway."

Sirius ground his teeth together, rage pounding in his chest. "You don't give a toss what I want."

"Language, Sirius," his father warned. "Of course we care. We want to see you do well. But you're still young. You need guidance to keep you on the right path. Your mother and I can provide it at home, but if it looks like you're not getting it at school, we may need to revisit our options."

"What options?" Sirius frowned in confusion.

"Durmstrang," said Orion. "Blacks have always gone to Hogwarts. It's a tradition as old as the family itself. But perhaps under the current regime, tradition no longer serves the family's best interests."

Sirius stared at his father in open-mouthed shock. "You can't --"

"I can and I will," Orion said grimly. "If we do not see a marked improvement in your attitude, your mother and I will certainly consider it. Now, go to your room. Think about what I've said. And write your apologies to your cousin and that boy. I will read them tomorrow before breakfast."

Stumbling up to his room, Sirius lay down on the bed, feeling ill. He imagined what it would be like, being sent away to a strange place, never to see his friends again. No more James grinning over a finely-crafted prank. No more late night excursions to the kitchens with Peter for snacks. No more Remus.

Sirius could not breathe. He clawed the neck of his robes open. The room felt like a trap closing in on him. Anxiety coursed through him making his stomach muscles clench tight, and he could not will them to relax. Getting up, he opened the room's small window, letting in some of the damp winter air, but no matter how much of it he gulped, Sirius could not seem to catch his breath. He had to get out. He had to get out now.

In a panic, Sirius jerked open his door and flew down the stairs to the parlour. The jar of Floo powder was in his hands when something grabbed him from behind.

"Master Sirius is escaping!" crowed Kreacher.

Sirius yelled, trying to shake him off. He had to get away. He would suffocate if he stayed here. His arms flailed wildly. He was shouting, incoherent, clawing his way towards the fireplace, calling out for "James! James! Remus!" when his father's second Stunner of the night hit him squarely in the back of the neck, and he slumped to the floor.

The next thing Sirius became aware of was darkness, cold, and the pervasive smell of damp. The cellar. They had locked him in the cellar. Sirius drew his knees up to his chest, hugging them tightly, and began to shake.

Chapter Text

All James and Remus wanted to talk about on the train back to school was the next Junior Defence League meeting.

"We can find people at supper, and tell them we're definitely meeting on Friday," said James.

Remus nodded. "And we can put the word around the common room tonight. Maybe we'll get a few new people."

Sirius scowled. Two weeks out of contact, and it felt like James and Remus had forgotten about him and become best friends with each other instead. "I wonder what's for supper?" he said loudly, interrupting their conversation.

"It's always something good, the first night back," said Peter. "Maybe there'll be cake."

But Sirius did not really want to talk about food. He wanted his friends to notice him. He wanted them to act like two weeks without him had been a hardship for them. He wanted them to know how truly terrible his holiday had been, and to feel bad about it, but he did not want to have to tell them.

"I'm hungry, too," said James. "Maybe we should go around the train and get the word out now, rather than taking time out of supper."

"That's probably a good idea," Remus agreed. "I can take the front half of the train, if you'll take the back."

"I'll come with you," volunteered Peter, hastily getting to his feet.

James looked at Sirius. "Are you coming?"

"If you want me to," Sirius shrugged.

They made their way down the narrow corridor, stopping to peer into each compartment for Junior Defence League members.

"So, how was your holiday?" James asked, tone carefully neutral.

Sirius shrugged again. "It was nothing special."

"Remus said you didn't write to him, either."

"Oh and I suppose you and Remus wrote a lot over the holidays?" sneered Sirius.

James frowned. "Yeah, we did. We wrote to you, too, but I guess you never got our letters."

"No," Sirius relented. "My parents took my owl. It was no big deal, though. Not much happened that was worth writing about."

James's frown deepened. "Mum was worried about you. Dad went 'round to your place to see if you were OK. Your parents said you were ill."

Sirius bit his lip, looking away. He had been ill, but not with anything he could name. He had spent most of the holiday feeling trapped and sick to his stomach, awash with anxiety, hardly able to eat or sleep. When he heard Joe Potter's voice through the sealed door of his room, Sirius had shouted himself hoarse, beating at the wood with his fists, but no one had heard him, and no one had come to let him out. Each day, his hopes that his friends were planning a daring rescue faded a little more. Only the thought of going back to Hogwarts had kept him going.

"Sirius?" James's hand was on his arm.

Sirius shook himself. "It was nothing."

"Are you sure you're OK?"

He took a deep breath. "I am now."

In the next compartment, they found Lily Evans sitting with Severus Snape and Dorcas Meadowes.

James grinned, ruffling his wayward hair. "Hey, Evans."

"Hullo, Potter. Good Christmas?" She gave them a friendly smile, but her eyes were wary, and she shifted her position slightly, putting herself between the Gryffindor boys and Snape.

"It was all right," said James. "We're just letting people know that Junior Defence League is definitely on for Friday, at the usual time. Spread the word if you see anyone, yeah?"

"I will," Evans promised.

Snape scowled. "Dunno why you're wasting your time with this lot. They're rubbish. You're loads better off practising with me."

Evans rolled her eyes. "I do practise with you, Sev. I'm learning different things with the JDL, though. It's really useful. You should consider joining. People could learn a lot from you."

James and Snape eyed one another with dislike.

"Yeah," said James doubtfully. "You should do that."

"I don't want Snivellus in our club," Sirius burst out when they left the compartment.

"Nor do I," said James, "but we can't bar anyone without a good reason. He probably won't come. Why would he? He thinks it's a waste of time."

"To ruin everything," Sirius said darkly.

James sighed. "We'll fight that dragon when we get to it."

Three compartments farther along, they found Alice Finch sitting with Venice Corbet, Elswith More, and the Hathersage sisters. Of the group, only Finch was a Junior Defence League member.

"You're all welcome to join," James told them. Sirius saw him look at Matilda Hathersage, then quickly away. "We meet Fridays after supper in the third classroom down the Charms corridor."

"Do you teach people how to fight werewolves?" asked Corbet.

"Eh?" Sirius stared at her in confusion.

Corbet ignored him, addressing James instead. "My parents say that werewolves did Dunheath. It happened right before the full moon, and if it wasn't an accident like the papers say, then it stands to reason that it was Dark creatures, doesn't it? No person could do something like that."

"Werewolves are people, you dozy cow," snapped Sirius. "They're no different from --"

"Shut it, Sirius." James's hand clamped down on his shoulder, restraining him. To Corbet, he said, "You can learn any kind of Defence you want in our club, so long as it's legal. And if you do come, I promise you the chance to hex this git."

He did not let go of Sirius until they were in the corridor once more, with the compartment door shut behind them.

"How can you let her say things like that, and not do anything about it?" Sirius demanded.

James gave him a sharp shove into the wall of the carriage. "I thought Remus was teaching you about self-control. But I guess you've forgotten everything over the hols. If you keep defending werewolves, people are going to start wondering why you care so much. Is that something you want people thinking about?"

Sirius lowered his eyes. "No."

"Then keep it to yourself."

Though James and Sirius tried to keep it from him, it did not take Remus long to hear the rumour about Dunheath being the work of werewolves. By Tuesday, it was all over the school, gaining wild embellishments with every telling. Remus kept his head down, and his face carefully blank whenever the theory was mentioned, practising his breathing exercises, and trying to let the words wash over him as meaningless noise, but it was hard hearing people talk about werewolves as if they were mindless killers. Still, Remus knew he could keep his mouth shut. He was more worried about Sirius, whose eyes flashed fire every time the word "werewolf" was mentioned.

"He won't say anything," James assured him. "I've spoken to him about it. Anyway, I think I've figured out a way to nip it in the bud."

"How?" asked Remus suspiciously.

James winked. "You'll see."

This did not relieve Remus's anxiety, but at least he did not have long to wait to find out what James's plan was. That afternoon, at the start of their Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson, his friend put up his hand.

"Yes, Potter?" barked Professor Gandolfsson.

"Everyone's saying Dunheath was werewolves. Do you think they're right, Sir?"

Remus stiffened. Sirius, sitting beside him, stared at James as if he had grown a second head.

"Werewolves. Bah!" snorted the Defence master. "People are fools. The attack on Dunheath happened in broad daylight, not under a full moon."

Gandolfsson's piercing eyes scanned the classroom. "When something bad happens, people look for someone to blame. Werewolves make easy scapegoats. They are already hated and feared. Wizards are constantly making laws to control their movements and behaviour. These laws may make people feel safer, but that safety is an illusion, because a werewolf in its untransformed state is only human, and no more or less capable of violence than anyone else."

Very carefully, Remus drew in a breath. He was beginning to understand James's plan, but he was not at all certain that it was a good idea.

"Werewolves are not responsible for the massacre at Dunheath," Gandolfsson continued. "Werewolves do not hate Muggles. Most Muggles don't even know that werewolves exist. Do you know who werewolves do hate?"

No one put up their hand. Remus knew the answer. His knuckles gripped white around his wand, waiting, knowing what was coming.

"They hate us," said Gandolfsson. "Out of fear, wizards make life hard for Dark creatures. Housing, employment, family. All these things are restricted to a greater or lesser extent for werewolves. They are left little choice but to seek the society of their own kind, bound together by common experience and by bitter hatred of a world which shuns them. Some embrace their baser natures, becoming the beasts we have told them they are, because it is the only power we cannot take from them. I assume you children have heard of Fenrir Greyback? If someone comes along offering werewolves a better life, make no mistake boys and girls, they will flock to that person's cause, and that person will use them to target wizards, not Muggles. We will have created our own worst enemy."

Remus could feel his friends looking at him. He kept his eyes fixed on Gandolfsson, his face an expressionless mask.

"But we're not here to talk about Dark creatures," the Defence master went on. "At least, not today. Today, we begin a unit on disguising techniques. Potions, glamours, and illusions to change the features and render a person unrecognisable, or at least unnoticeable. You will only be learning the theory behind these methods, and the pitfalls associated with them. None of you are advanced enough to wield the magic we will be discussing. But one day, if the more gifted among you survive long enough and apply yourselves, who knows what you might achieve?"

He raised his hands over his head, and in an instant, all thought of werewolves was forgotten. The class gasped as a large tawny owl took flight from the floating carpet which had supported their teacher only a moment before, and swooped over the heads of the awed students. The owl circled the classroom once before returning to the carpet, wings flapping furiously as it slowly lowered itself. In the blink of an eye, Gandolfsson was settling himself back into his seat.

"Not a bad trick, eh?" he smirked. "The Animagus transformation takes years of study to master. Many wizards attempt it, but only a handful succeed. It has its uses, in terms of disguise. I lived undercover as a Dark wizard's owl for a year, before he found me out. I lost the use of my legs because he happened to glance at the Ministry's Animagus Registry. Bad luck, eh? No disguise is foolproof."

Exciting as it was to see a rare bit of magic performed, Remus knew it was too much to hope that it would distract his friends from Gandolfsson's words about werewolves for very long. He tried to postpone the inevitable by disappearing to the library after class, but when he arrived in the Great Hall for lunch, all three of them looked at him in a way that made him certain they had been talking about him only a moment before. Feeling like a coward, he went to sit with Lily and her friends. She, at least, treated him exactly the same as she always did.

They were waiting for him in the entrance hall afterwards.

"Can we do this outside?" he asked, resigned.

"It's cold outside," said Peter. "We haven't got our cloaks."

"C'mon," said James. "It'll only take a minute."

The grounds were icy cold, and crunchy with weeks-old snow, but they were deserted. There was no one to overhear them.

The second they reached the foot of the steps, Sirius rounded on Remus. "Is he right?" he demanded. "D'you hate wizards?"

Remus hunched his shoulders. "I -- it's complicated, all right?"

"But you don't hate us, do you?" asked Peter, looking worried.

"He doesn't," James soothed. "He knows we're all right. I told you --"

"Not all wizards hate werewolves," Sirius pointed out, interrupting him. "Just stupid ones who don't know any better. You can't hate all wizards just because some of them are tossers. That's just as bad as wizards hating all werewolves."

"It's not the same thing," Remus burst out, trying to keep the pleading note from his voice. "You don't know what it's like, having all these laws and rules telling you what you can and can't do a hundred times a day. If I get caught breaking or forgetting one, it's not detention I have to worry about. I could go to prison. Wizards made those laws, and other wizards kept quiet and went along with it. Whether the three of you agree with them or not doesn't matter. It doesn't affect you -- at least not any more than you decide you want it to. I don't get to decide that. No matter how 'good' I am, I don't get to live my life in peace. I don't ever get to not think about it. If I say 'I hate wizards' -- if every werewolf in the world says it -- maybe your feelings will be hurt, but you still get to live your lives however you want. It's not at all the same thing as wizards hating werewolves. And now Gandolfsson's gone and made everyone even more afraid and I just can't --"

Remus broke off, breathing hard. His friends stared at him in stunned silence. He felt as if he was about to cry, and swallowed hard, forcing the feeling down. Not here. Not now. Not when it was so important that they understand. He had to be in control.

"I don't hate you," he said in a much quieter voice. "Of course I don't. You're my friends. But I do hate the Wizarding world sometimes, because it's so hard for me to live in it, and it's probably never going to get any easier. Can you understand that?"

Slowly, Peter nodded.

"That makes sense," said James.

"I'd hate it, too," agreed Sirius. "All those rules. But you're not going to change sides if someone offers you a better deal, are you?"

"No," Remus said firmly. "Not if they think that killing people is the right way to go about it."

More than twenty people showed up for the Junior Defence League meeting on Friday. Among the new faces were a Hufflepuff fourth year called Frank Longbottom, the Hathersage sisters, and even a couple of first year Slytherins whom James did not know.

"OK, everyone," he said, raising his hands to call the meeting to order. He avoided looking at Matilda Hathersage, but his cheeks grew hot, knowing she was watching him. "Remus and Evans have something new to show us. You're going to want to see this."

The other students crowded curiously around the boy and girl sitting cross-legged on the floor, holding hands, a bronze Knut lying between them, the head of Merlin showing.

"Ready?" Remus asked quietly.

Evans nodded, and the two of them closed their eyes and began drawing deep, even breaths. "Wingardium Leviosa."

For a moment, nothing happened. Then, the coin moved. It scooted a fraction of an inch across the floor before slowly tipping up on its edge. It balanced there, trembling, for a moment before flopping back to the ground, reverse side pointing its crossed wands at the ceiling.

A few of the older students applauded, but one of the Slytherins asked, "What use is that?"

James scowled at him. "You don't think learning to do magic without a wand is useful?"

"Well sure, if you can do more than coin tricks," said the Slytherin.

"You can," said Remus as Evans helped him to his feet. "But we just started, and we're only second years. It takes practice to get good at it. You can do any kind of magic without a wand that you can do with one. It's harder, though. Wands focus and direct magic. If you don't have one, you have to focus with your mind."

"And how do you do that?" asked the other Slytherin.

"Meditation and breathing exercises can help," said Evans. "Learning concentration can also help you get better at advanced magic quicker."

Remus nodded. "I think we should start doing meditation practice at these meetings. But you'll have to do it on your own or with a partner, too, a few times a week if you want to get good at it."

The Junior Defence League's first meditation exercise was not an unqualified success. As had happened the previous year when James, Sirius, and Peter had tried to meditate with Remus, every time someone shifted position, or coughed, or scratched themselves, everyone got distracted and had to start over again. Someone even began to snore before a neighbour elbowed them awake.

"This is boring," muttered the complaining Slytherin.

"Shut up," hissed his friend.

Only when the group had managed thirty seconds of stillness and silence in a row did Remus finally say, "OK, that was good. If you practise that on your own this week, next week should be easier."

They split up into pairs then, for their Disarming and Shield charms warmup exercise. Matilda Hathersage tried to catch James's eye, but he panicked and quickly partnered with Peter, and she turned away, looking disappointed.

James could not focus. He kept glancing over to where Matilda was working with Remus, wielding her wand with a serious expression on her face. Peter managed to Disarm him three times, which did wonders for Peter's confidence, but made James a bit grumpy. When they changed partners, he signaled to Remus. The two of them stood apart, watching the others work.

"Did she say anything to you?" James asked in an undertone.

"No." Remus frowned. "But she thinks you're still angry with her for making the Quidditch team. Lily told me."


"She's a good Seeker," Remus pointed out. "There's no reason why she shouldn't have tried out, or that Brown shouldn't have picked her for the team. You know she wouldn't be acting like this if you had made Seeker."

James made a face. "I know."

"Are you still angry with her?" Remus asked.

"No," said James, embarrassed. "I was for a bit, but I got over it."

"So what's the trouble, then?"

James looked across the room to where Matilda was facing off against Lily Evans. "I was rude to her," he said. "I know it. And now -- it's awkward."

"You could apologise," Remus suggested. "If you like her --"

James flushed. "I do like her. But I don't really know her, do I? We've never talked and we're not friends. I wouldn't know what to say."

Remus grinned. "'Sorry I was such an arse' might make a good start."

"Yeah," said James, smiling reluctantly. "You'd think I'd be pretty good at saying that by now."