They were dead. James Potter, his best friend. Lily, James's wife. And Peter had been the traitor. Peter. He should have known.
Sirius Black sat in the far corner of a holding cell at the Ministry of Magic, numbed with shock over the events of the previous twenty-four hours.
I suppose I should be glad, he thought disconnectedly. Voldemort has fallen. The war is over. Harry's safe. Remus is alive. Oh, God! Remus!
Remus, out there, thinking him a traitor. He had a sudden memory of his last sight of his lover, kneeling on the pavement, a look of horror and disbelief in his beautiful brown eyes.
Panicked by the memory, he struggled to his feet at last. The Magical Law Enforcement squad had chained him heavily, but he was still able to move as far as the door to his cell. He rattled the bars until he got the guard's attention.
"Please," he said, hearing the desperation in his own voice, "I need to see Remus. Can someone get a message to Remus Lupin?"
The guard just sneered at him. "Shut up, Black," he growled. "You've lost your right to make requests."
You wouldn't talk so big if your clothes suddenly shrank down to half their size, thought Sirius. If I had my wand --
But he was never going to have his wand again. He had watched some Ministry lackey snap it in half no more than an hour before. The wand he had carried since he had been old enough to own one. And now they were going to send him to Azkaban, and he would never have a wand again. He sank back down in the far corner of the cell, the horror of that thought stripping away the last shreds of his devil-may-care bravado. Sirius hugged his knees, trying to still the trembling.
Think, man! he chided himself. Think clearly. What happens now?
Harry. Harry would be safe. And Remus, too, because now Peter would be forced to go into hiding. If he meant to implicate Sirius for his crimes, he certainly could not show himself anytime soon, and possibly never again.
No, he thought. One day he'll slip up and someone will see. Someone will know. The thought comforted him slightly. I only hope I last that long.
The thought of Azkaban terrified him. He had never been near a Dementor, but he knew all about them from his Defence Against the Dark Arts classes at Hogwarts. They fed on happiness, and left only the worst memories and thoughts in their victims.
Maybe I deserve that, he thought hopelessly. After all, I was the one who let James switch to Peter. How could I have been so thick? One of us had to be the traitor, and the only one I knew it wasn't, was me. Why didn't I realise there was a fifty-fifty chance I was selling them to Voldemort right then and there? Might as well send me to Azkaban; I as good as killed them myself, didn't I? But, oh, Moony, Moony --
Hot tears were coursing down his cheeks, and he did not bother to wipe them away. He didn't want to go to prison. He was young and foolish, but he had not truly done anything wrong. But Remus didn't know that -- couldn't know it -- and there was no way for Sirius to tell him. No way he would believe.
Maybe he'll come to me, he thought forlornly.
He knew it was a vain hope. Remus would hate him now. He would probably never see him again.
Poor Moony. His heart will be broken, just like mine is. He thinks I did this to him. Peter's going to pay for that as well.
The Dementors would be here for him soon, he knew. He had heard Cornelius Fudge say so to some other Magical Law Enforcement official. They were not even planning to give him a trial. No point, they had said. Open and shut case, they had said. Too much evidence against him. He would be in Azkaban before he could ever get a message to Remus.
I'm about to go to a place where I'll never be allowed to have a happy thought or memory again as long as I live, he thought despairingly. Might as well have a few while I still can.
He closed his eyes and rested his head back against the cold, whitewashed stone wall. Still hugging his knees to his chest, he began taking slow, deep, calming breaths.
The first memory that came to mind was the night he had sworn to protect Remus. It was not precisely a happy memory, but it was a good one. Though it had been nine years ago, he tried his best to recall every detail.
His eyes had opened on darkness. For one disoriented moment, he had not known what had awakened him. Then he heard it: the soft sounds of someone trying to cry very quietly. Remus. Again. He had briefly debated with himself whether or not he should simply turn over and try to go back to sleep. Obviously, Remus was trying not to be heard, and did not want to awaken anyone. He would probably be embarrassed if he knew one of his friends had caught him blubbing like a girl.
But caution had never been a word in Sirius's vocabulary, and, at twelve, he had not really been one for taking the feelings of others into account. Especially when they interrupted his sleep. He sat up and pushed aside the bed curtains, peering across the darkened room.
"Remus?" he whispered. The sounds of misery stopped abruptly. "Are you ill or something?"
It was almost a minute before a voice dulled by a stuffy nose replied, "No. I'm okay."
Sirius swung his gangly, adolescent legs out of bed and put his bare feet on the cold floor. "No you're not. You can't bullshit a bullshitter, Remus." It was a phrase he had heard a fifth year Hufflepuff use, and he had been looking for an opportunity to try it out all week.
"I'm fine," insisted the quiet voice across the room.
Plucking his wand off the nightstand, he whispered, "Lumos." The faint glow threw shadows against the bedroom walls as he tiptoed across the room, pushed the bed hangings aside, and sat down on the edge of Remus's bed.
Wandlight reflected off a glaring, tear-streaked face, which Remus quickly and conspicuously rubbed with the bed sheet.
"Put that out, Sirius," he had hissed. "You're going to wake Pete and James."
"I'll put it out if you'll tell me what's wrong," Sirius said. "Budge over."
Resigned, Remus moved over to make room for him, and Sirius nestled himself unselfconsciously down onto the pillow beside his friend. It was chilly in the room, and he pulled the covers up over both of them.
"It's nothing," Remus had insisted again, once the light was out. "Or nothing to bother you guys with. I'll be fine in the morning."
"Sure you will. And next month, you'll go away again and come back and disturb my beauty sleep sobbing into your pillow," he teased, sighing tragically and flopping onto his back. "I'll be old and wrinkled before my time, and you'll be to blame."
"My mother --" Remus began.
"Is ill. You have to go home and see her. Yeah, I've heard that one before. Tell me another. The 'my mother is ill' excuse only works on Pete and the very gullible."
"But -" Remus tried.
"I wonder," Sirius mused, cutting him off and rolling toward him until their foreheads were almost touching, "why it seems like your mum always needs to see you on the night of the full moon?" He felt Remus stiffen. "See, I have this theory," he went on, "that it's not your mum who's ill. It's you."
"I'm fine!" Remus said again, but he said it a little too quickly, and there was no hiding the note of panic in his voice.
"Come off it, Remus." Sirius was grinning now. He loved being right. "Illness and absences on the full moon," he counted off on fingers he could not see in the darkness. "Moodiness. Pale, ill and crying for a day or two after said 'absences'. And do you think even Pete has missed those scars? You're covered with scratch and bite marks. Unless you've got a very unfriendly dog we know nothing about hidden away somewhere, I'm putting two and two together, and I'm getting 'werewolf'."
Remus was silent for a moment before saying, "That's mad."
"Did you think you could hide it from us forever? C'mon 'Moony'; I've known for ages. James, too. Even Pete is going to catch on before long."
He could almost feel Remus withdrawing into himself, and it suddenly occurred to him that their friendship had reached a very delicate juncture
"Hey," he said, blindly reaching out to pat the other boy awkwardly on the back. "We don't mind. Really, we don't. In fact, I think it's kind of cool."
"It's not 'cool'," Remus had confessed at last, grumpily. "It's about the furthest thing from 'cool' there is."
"No," Sirius assured him, "the furthest thing from 'cool' is definitely Snivellus. You've got nothing to worry about on that score."
Remus snorted briefly at that, then sighed. "I guess I was fooling myself that I could hide it from you lot when we share a room, and all. There's no point in keeping secrets, is there?"
"Not a bit!" declared Sirius cheerfully, giving his friend a quick hug to celebrate his own cleverness.
"Promise you won't tell anyone else?" Remus pleaded, his hand finding Sirius's wrist and giving it an urgent squeeze. "Dumbledore knows. And Madam Pomfrey. If you guys know and don't mind so much, that's okay, I guess, but if anyone else found out --"
"Your secret's safe with me," Sirius assured him. "On one condition. Tell me what it's like?"
Remus had turned away from him, and was silent for so long that Sirius considered getting up going back to his own bed. Then Remus told him. Told him about a terrified six-year-old, bitten by a savage beast. About fearing the waxing of the moon, and about relief at its waning. About the fear of harming someone, and the fear that someone would find out. About maybe not being able to go to school or have friends or stay in the same place for very long. And then he told him about the pain and horror of the transformations themselves. About scratching and biting himself until he bled. About waking, weak, nauseated, shaking, cold, alone, naked in the dawn. He told all of it in a quiet, even whisper, but Sirius could feel him trembling as he spoke.
Sirius was sorry he had asked. It sounded horrible. Twelve years in the Black family had spoiled his instincts for empathy, and he was not sure what the situation required. However, a new emotion had bloomed in Sirius that night; something powerful that he had never felt before. He didn't recognize it then, but years later, he knew it for what it was: the need to protect another living creature -- that most basic and primal form of love. But he had not had the first clue then what he could do for his friend.
"Don't worry, Remus," he had said doubtfully, snuggling close and putting an arm around him. Remus did not object. "James and I will come up with a way to make it better. Maybe we'll be the first to discover a cure for werewolfness."
"Lycanthropy," Remus had told him sleepily. "It's called 'Lycanthropy'. And you won't find one." He was quiet for a moment, then added, "Thanks, Sirius. I guess I'm glad I don't have to keep it secret from you guys. I didn't like to, but I didn't see any other way."
"Think you can let me get my beauty sleep now, Moony?"
"Sirius, please don't ever call me that again."
"I swear it on my honour as a Black," Sirius had grinned, burrowing deeper under the covers. "Good night, Moony," he said, but Remus was already asleep.
Alone in the holding cell at the Ministry of Magic, Sirius felt a hot tear slip down his cheek.
I was going to protect you, Moony. I was going to keep you safe. And now you're all alone, and I can't even help myself.
He must have dozed off, because the next thing he remembered was the guard banging on the bars of his cell.
"You've got a visitor, Black," the guard spat, and then to someone out of sight, "You have ten minutes, Sir. I'll be just over there, keeping a close eye on this filth."
Sirius struggled to his feet. "Moony! I --"
But it was not Remus gazing at him through the bars. It was Albus Dumbledore, and there was a look of immense sadness in his eyes.
"Sirius --" he began gravely, but Sirius cut him off.
"Professor, I didn't do it, I swear! You know me! I never would have allowed James and Lily to be hurt! How can you even think --?"
"I hardly know what to think," Dumbledore said sadly. He took off his half-moon spectacles and wiped them on his robes. "I am an old man, and very tired. There was a time when I thought I knew you -- thought I knew a thing or two about human nature -- but perhaps I have lost my touch."
"I was never their Secret-Keeper, Professor!" he protested. "Just ask --"
But there was no one left to ask. James and Lily were dead. Peter was in hiding, and unlikely to come forward to implicate himself. Remus had never known about the switch. The only person in the world who might know the truth was Harry, but at the age of fifteen months, he was unlikely to provide much of an alibi for his godfather.
Sirius slumped back down to the floor, defeated.
Dumbledore looked down at him almost pityingly. "I have no one's word on that matter but yours, Sirius, which, you must understand, is somewhat suspect. James Potter told me himself that you were to be their Secret-Keeper. A street full of witnesses swear that they saw you murder a dozen Muggles, not to mention Peter Pettigrew, who was also your friend."
"I didn't --" Sirius tried to protest.
"And," Dumbledore said sharply, cutting him off, "unless you wish to implicate Remus in the matter of the Potters' deaths, you must understand that there is no one else upon whom blame can reasonably be placed." Dumbledore raised his bushy, white eyebrows inquiringly.
Sirius shook his head, horrified. "No," he said softly. "Remus had nothing to do with it. He didn't know anything about the switch. James and Peter and I were the only one who knew."
"I see," Dumbledore's voice was grave. "In that case, you must realise that there is no alternative. The case against you is very strong. There are a number of witnesses, myself included. I have given testimony that James told me you were their Secret-Keeper."
Sirius nodded miserably, not looking up.
"If you were to confess," Dumbledore suggested gently, "then perhaps --"
"Confess?" Sirius laughed bitterly. "The Black family may be a bunch of cold-hearted bastards, Professor, but we're not liars. I'll confess to nothing I haven't done."
"Then there is nothing I can do for you, Sirius." Dumbledore's voice was sad. He turned to go.
"Professor?" Sirius looked up at last. "There is one thing."
Dumbledore looked at him inquiringly.
"Could you please -- I mean -- that is, could you tell Remus that I -- that I'm sorry. That there was nothing I could do. And please -- could you ask him if he'll come see me? I need to talk to him. I need to tell him what happened. Maybe he'll understand. I don't know."
Dumbledore nodded. "I shall deliver your message if I see him. But he may not want to come here, you understand."
"I know. But please, Professor -- make sure nothing happens to him? I need to know he's safe."
"I will do what I can," the headmaster promised.
As Dumbledore turned to go once more, the guard piped up, "Is that Remus you're talking about the same as Remus Lupin? 'Cos they've brought him in for questioning." He waved a long scroll of names vaguely at the headmaster.
"Thank you, young man," Dumbledore bowed slightly. "Could you tell me where I might find him?"
"They'll be interviewing him at the other end of this wing, Sir," he said. "Just down through the security doors. One of the offices on the left. Clarke or Murdoch or one of them."
Dumbledore thanked him again and left, walking purposefully.
A tiny glimmer of hope sparked in Sirius's breast. He's here. Remus is just down the hall. Maybe he'll come, if Dumbledore asks him. Maybe he'll believe me.
And so he sat and waited, stomach churning. An hour passed, and another, and another. He got up and paced the tiny cell, chains rattling, trying to think of the best way to tell the story to Remus. Remus would believe him. He had to.
At last, the door to the holding area opened.
"Remus --" Sirius cried eagerly, clutching at the bars of his cell.
But it was not Remus who entered the room. There were two of them. They were tall and hooded and seemed to drift, rather than walk, and they were preceded by an intense cold.
Sirius sank down, huddling into the far corner of his cell as they drew across the room toward him. Remus was not coming.