The Sugar Quill
Author: Rochefort  Story: An Intimate Conspiracy  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

An Intimate Conspiracy

by Rochefort

 

* * * * *

 

'Sirius here played a trick on him which nearly killed him, a trick which involved me'

 

Why did Sirius tell Snape how to get into the Shrieking Shack? Why did Remus forgive Sirius?
And why did Snape keep quiet about it all?

 

* * * * *

 

Sirius Black hurried up the torch-lit staircase of Gryffindor Tower in long strides, taking the steps two and three at a time. The morning was barely over, but already the day was shaping up to be one of the worst he could ever remember.

It hadn't got off to a good start when he'd slept in and was ten minutes late for History of Magic. Binns hadn't given him detention, but had gazed at him so reproachfully that Sirius had almost begun to wish he would. McGonagall, on the other hand, had had no such qualms when he'd nodded off in her class, and had given him a detention for disrupting the lesson, for putting the other students off their work and for falling behind in his own. Sirius had to stifle a laugh at the irony of that one: he was so far ahead of almost everyone else that he could probably have taught the class for McGonagall if she'd asked him.

But routine detentions and annoyed teachers hardly qualified as upsets -- they were the minor hiccups of everyday school life, nuisances that he usually took in his stride without so much as blinking. What was worrying him now was much more serious, with results that were potentially devastating; and the problem was he didn't have a clue how to deal with it. He should already have been on his way to his next class, but he needed to talk to James, who had left lunch early to go back for a Charms text he had forgotten to pack. Worry and anger squirmed around his insides like a sackful of jarveys.

Sirius pushed open the door and looked quickly around the quiet, sunlit dormitory. 'James?' he called tentatively.

James's head appeared around the curtains at the foot of his bed, where he was apparently kneeling in front of his trunk. 'Hi. What's wrong?' he added with a frown, catching sight of Sirius's expression.

'Bloody Snape. What else?' Sirius crossed the room and dropped his bag to the floor before letting himself flop back heavily onto his bed. 'He's been on at Moony again.'

James had stopped rifling through his trunk and was sitting back on his heels, looking at him uneasily. 'What's he done now?' he said.

'He was waiting for us just outside the doors to the Entrance Hall after lunch. He called Remus over. Asked him which of his aunts was going to die this month, and wasn't he starting to run out of them by now.' Sirius lay silent and motionless for a moment, then rolled over on his side, head propped on his hand, and stared intently at James. 'Why should he say that? It's the second time in as many months, and on the day of the full moon both times. The bastard knows, I'm telling you James. He's just playing cat-and-mouse with him.'

'Where is Moony, anyway?'

'Gone ahead to Charms with Peter.' Sirius's hand was curled into a fist and he stared down at his white knuckles. 'I'd like to smash his ugly, greasy face in,' he said quietly.

James frowned again. 'What did Moony say?'

'Oh, remember last month he said it was a coincidence, he'd sit it out, didn't want to draw more attention to himself, blah, blah, blah. Well, now he does think there's more to it, but he says he needs to talk to all of us, to decide what's the best thing to do.' Sirius swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat up. 'He's got the patience of Job, but I haven't. I've got a feeling we're running out of time here -- we've got to do something.'

'Yeah, we do. But... I can see Moony's point, too,' James said slowly. He stared ahead absently, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose with his middle finger. 'What can he do to get Snape off his back? It's not obvious. Hex him? Curse him? He probably knows more curses than the four of us put together. And anyway, that would just encourage him.'

He leaned forward to rest his forearms on the edge of the trunk, and turned to look at Sirius. 'We could go to Dumbledore -- but that might get complicated, too. What if Snape hadn't guessed at all, and then Dumbledore confronted him anyway? That's definitely a last resort. The best thing would be something that would scare him off, or make him shut up. Preferably both. Moony's right -- we do need to sit down and talk about it.' James's head ducked back down into the trunk again.

'D'you know what I think?' blurted Sirius, who had only been half-listening. 'I think that one of these days, he's going to announce it in front of everybody in the Great Hall. Then all hell'll break loose, and Remus'll be forced to leave.' Sirius bent his head, pushing his fingers back through his hair. 'Because of that shit... and he'll be sitting there, so smug, no consequences for him, no repercussions. Because he'll have saved the school from a "dangerous beast".' Sirius snorted. 'God, he makes me sick.'

'It does sound like he's getting close, but he can't know yet.' James's muffled voice rose up from the trunk, over the sounds of scrabbling and rummaging. 'Because if he did, he wouldn't be slow in telling us. And everyone else, you're right about that... Ah, got it!' He straightened, brandishing his missing book triumphantly, and turned to stuff it into the bag that lay beside him on the floor.

'But if he doesn't know, but he is close -- how're we going to stop him from finding out?' Sirius said. 'You know what he's like, sneaking about -- if he thinks there's something he's not supposed to know, he'll try twice as hard to ferret it out.'

'Yeah,' James said thoughtfully. 'What we really need is something that can keep tabs on him -- show us where he is. But for now, the only thing I can think is that the three of us need to keep him off Remus's trail on full-moon nights. Until we can come up with a solution. Starting tonight.'

'And what'll we do when we've got the transfigurations mastered? How'll we hide that? We're not far away now... just a few more weeks.' Seeing James gathering his things, Sirius pushed himself up and grabbed his own bag, then crossed the room to hold the door open.

'Well, then, maybe one of us'll turn into a really useful animal -- like a man- eating tiger.' James stopped in the doorway and shrugged. 'Problem solved.'

Sirius laughed in spite of his mood, and the pair left the dormitory to start down the shadowy stairs, already five minutes late for their next class.

* * * * *

By the time everyone began filing into the Great Hall for dinner late that afternoon, Sirius's suspicions that Snape knew everything were virtually confirmed. A distraction caused by three escaping murtlaps in Care of Magical Creatures had given Snape the chance to make another snide remark to Remus about his expected absence this coming evening. Remus had said nothing, but Sirius knew the whole issue was weighing heavily on him as he walked with Remus to the hospital wing to report to Madam Pomfrey.

He was still talking about it as he sat down for dinner with James and Peter, who were both undecided.

'I just think if he really knew, he wouldn't only be hinting, that's all. Let's talk about it when we get back to the tower later,' Peter said, with significant glances at the other students sitting close by. He settled down to attack his soup with enthusiasm.

Sirius, whose appetite was always healthy, watched in mild distaste. There weren't many things he wouldn't eat, but Scotch Broth was definitely one of them. He pushed the spoon around in his bowl listlessly, watching the various lumpy bits swirl together, then turned to James. 'But why he would have said that if he didn't know?'

James shrugged, reaching for a bread roll. 'He could be just bluffing. Trying to put the wind up us. Look, there's no point in worrying about it now. We made sure Remus got safely to Madam Pomfrey -- he's ok now. After dinner we'll keep an eye on Snape, make sure he's not doing anything he shouldn't. Remus has--'

But whatever Remus had done, Sirius never found out. Peter had dropped his spoon into his bowl with a clatter, splattering the robes of the people sitting around him with pieces of mutton and barley and splashes of hot, steaming liquid. There were loud cries of annoyance and disgust, but Peter didn't seem to hear them: his attention was riveted on the Slytherin table at the far side of the hall, his eyes scanning back and forth along its length. With a feeling of foreboding, Sirius whirled around in his seat. The Great Hall was almost full, with few empty seats around the place, and only one at the Slytherin table -- Snape's.

Sirius clambered out of his seat, aware of James and Peter doing the same on the other side of the table, and headed for the door, uncaring that the speed of their exit was obviously attracting some attention.

The air in the Entrance Hall outside was chill compared to the cheerful warmth of the Great Hall, and Sirius involuntarily shivered as they drew together, huddling into a tight group.

'We'll have to split up,' James said in a low voice. He craned his neck, head twisting around in every direction as he spoke, as though he expected Snape to be spying from behind a banister or inside a suit of armour. 'Peter, you can stay here and see if he passes through. Keep an eye on the front doors, too. Sirius, you check the grounds. I'll hang about at the Slytherins' dungeon and see if he's there. It's--' he pushed up his sleeve to check his watch '--twenty to six. Remus'll be on his way to the Shack by now. But we need to find out what Snape's been up to when he wasn't at dinner, if we can -- so Sirius, if we come across him, we don't hex him until we get some information out of him, ok? And try not to rise to his taunts. This is too important.'

'How long should we hang about? It'll start to look suspicious if we're skulking,' said Peter.

'It shouldn't take long to find out if he's been up to anything, should it?' James said, turning to Sirius.

'He's probably figuring out the best way he can announce it to everyone,' Sirius snarled.

'Well, let's get on and see if we can discover what he's been doing,' James said hurriedly. 'We'll meet back in the common room in half an hour; then if we need it, we can get the Cloak and have a proper look around.'

The three separated, each heading in a different direction.

Sirius slipped out the front doors and stood for a moment on the top step to let his eyes grow accustomed to the darkness. The lights that shone down from the castle windows cast an orange glow on the grounds immediately below, but the vast area beyond was as black as a pit. He moved forward, creeping warily down the stone stairs until he reached the grass, where the sounds of his footsteps would be deadened by the chill earth.

The air of absolute stillness around the grounds suggested that no-one was out -- or if anyone was, they were making sure to keep themselves well hidden. Sirius headed straight for the Whomping Willow, standing on its own in the centre of the grounds, to reassure himself first of all that Snape hadn't been snooping around there. He trod carefully, cursing the slipperiness underfoot as his feet slid a little on the frosty grass.

Few stars were out and the sky was dark, but the Willow was darker still, its outline motionless in black relief. Its branches began to sway agitatedly as he approached, and he backed off, satisfied that no-one could stand close to the tree without being obvious. He headed for the edges of the grounds, where the trees of the Forbidden Forest loomed.

A light would have made walking easier, but Sirius didn't want to advertise his presence. He wove in and out of the trees at the Forest's edge, trying not to stumble over gnarled roots and uneven tufts of grass. The night was so black that only a cat could see properly, and it wouldn't have been possible for Snape to spy on the Willow and its secrets from here.

By the time he had finished his search, he was coming to the conclusion that Snape had been been doing his snooping elsewhere. There seemed no sign of him, and Remus was long gone, safe in the Shack by now. Sirius shivered and wished he'd had time to bring his cloak. He began to make his way slowly towards the front doors, his empty stomach rumbling. Dinner was well and truly over, and now even the Scotch Broth was starting to seem quite appetising.

But still he couldn't quite shake off a small, persistent doubt, a feeling that something wasn't right, and that Snape was involved somehow. Looking at the situation rationally, Sirius knew he'd done all he could for now, and tried to tell himself it was just the thought of Snape was making him suspicious; but stubbornly, the doubt remained. Deep in thought, he found himself coming to a halt facing the foot of the castle wall, where the darkness was so thick it seemed to envelop him. It was impossible to make out any detail, and that was why he heard rather than saw someone moving quietly up ahead.

'Lumos,' Sirius called clearly, holding his wand high, and a dazzling light flooded the ground and bounced off the stone walls, illuminating the startled figure of Severus Snape.

Sirius marched towards him, lip curled. 'What are you doing, creeping about here?'

'I could ask you the same question, Black,' Snape said, quickly recovering his composure and drawing himself up to his full height.

'Mind your own bloody business,' Sirius retorted. 'Why don't you get back to your dungeon, where you belong?'

'Oh, but I am minding my own business. Or rather, the school's business.' He took a step closer to Sirius, a slow smirk spreading across his face. 'I saw something very interesting this evening, something that I suspect other people wouldn't mind knowing about, too. Do you want to know what it was?'

Sirius didn't speak. His whole body was an agonised knot of anticipation as he waited for Snape's next words.

'I saw Lupin leaving the castle with Madam Pomfrey,' Snape said with barely concealed triumph. 'I watched her lead him across the grounds. Like an invalid. A pathetic weakling, not worth the name of wizard.'

Sirius struggled to keep his face straight, evidently without success: Snape's smirk widened, clearly illuminated by the wandlight. He wished he could hex the bastard into next week. His insides were cold, and chills ran down his back.

'And where do you suppose he was going, Black?' Snape was saying. 'Was it a secret? Under cover of darkness? Something that might get him expelled, do you think, if other people were to find out?'

So he had been right -- Snape was playing cat-and-mouse. Distantly, Sirius noticed the icy feeling inside him being consumed, boiled away by a spontaneous, seething fury. 'Pathetic weakling? Is that what you think?' He laughed. He'd just thought of the perfect way to teach Snape the lesson of his life. 'Why don't you go and see for yourself how pathetic he is? Go on, if you're so brave. See how weak he is.' Sirius's whole body shook with unexpressed rage as he waited, desperately willing Snape to take the bait.

Snape was looking eager, but obviously suspicious. 'What do you mean?' he said, his eyes narrowing.

'Over there,' Sirius replied, turning and pointing to the Willow. 'There's a tunnel under the tree. Go and see for yourself where Remus is. You can slip in under the roots; there's a little opening.'

'Do you think I'm as stupid as you look, Black? That tree would decapitate me as soon as I was in range.'

'There's a knot, on this side. Get a branch, or a long stick. Poke it in the knot. It'll freeze the branches long enough to let you slip into the gap.' Sirius stepped back. 'Well? What're you waiting for? You've been dying to find out, haven't you? Now's your chance.'

The blood was pounding in his head as he turned his back on Snape and began to move away, back to the castle. Everything was silent; Snape didn't seem to be following him. Please, please, Sirius thought, do it. He forced himself to walk straight on and not turn around. 'Nox,' he whispered as he walked, and the light at the tip of his wand went out.

Sirius had to stop until the light's ghost vision had faded from his retinas. No sound came from behind him, and under the cloak of darkness he allowed himself to turn around. He couldn't make out Snape in the dark grounds, but the black branches of the Whomping Willow were thrashing wildly against the ink-blue sky; and then they froze. He watched, heart in his throat, waiting for endless moments, until the tree snapped back angrily to life.

Satisfied, he turned away and walked up the steps and through the front doors of the castle.

* * * * *

Sirius bounded up the stairs all the way to Gryffindor Tower. He was trembling with a strange thrill of excitement, the likes of which he'd never felt before. It made him light-headed, almost giddy, and his heart was galloping with a fierce, rushing joy.

He climbed through the portrait hole into the common room. A lot of people were obviously still in the Great Hall: a few students were sprawled in front of the fire, playing a game of gobstones; some lazed in chairs or on sofas, talking or reading; and a handful of more eager types had already settled down to start their homework.

Sirius looked around for James and Peter, and quickly spotted them conferring, heads close together, at one of the long, darkly polished oak tables. He threaded his way past comfy chairs and their lounging occupants to the other side of the room, pulled out a small wooden chair from underneath the end of their table, and sat down. Seeing his approach, his friends had fallen silent and were waiting expectantly, keen to hear how his watch had gone.

'Well?' said Peter impatiently. 'We didn't find him. Did you?'

Sirius smirked. 'I did, as a matter of fact. And we had a very interesting discussion. Snape was snooping around after Remus.'

Peter turned to James, looking vindicated. 'Hah! We were right. Did you manage to throw him off?' he asked Sirius.

'Yeah, in a manner of speaking.'

'What d'you mean?' James said with a smile.

'He was hanging about the grounds. I asked him what he was doing, and he said he had been watching Remus leave with Madam Pomfrey.' Peter and James exchanged a look, eyes wide. 'Except he called him a weakling,' Sirius continued, leaning forward to prop his elbows on the table and crack his knuckles loudly. 'Well, he's just about to discover how weak Remus really is.'

'What d'you mean?' James repeated, a wariness now behind his words.

Sirius lowered his voice. 'I told him how to get into the Willow.'

James's face froze almost comically, although his eyes were wide and staring. 'Tell me you're kidding,' he said in a voice that was flat and toneless.

'What?' Sirius suppressed a half-laugh at the look on James's face. Peter was silent, jaw hanging slack.

'You didn't really do that, did you?'

'Too right I did! That git won't mess with Moony again.'

'Oh, fuck!' gasped James.

Before Sirius could blink, James was on his feet and halfway to the portrait hole, hurdling bags and outstretched legs as he went. To a muffled squawk of indignation from the Fat Lady outside, he roughly barged the painting aside, leapt through the entrance and disappeared from sight.

James's sudden exit had turned several curious heads, a few of which were still looking in their direction. Peter pushed back his chair and got to his feet more slowly. He didn't look at Sirius, but followed James to the portrait hole, sticking his head around it and out into the corridor, apparently looking to see where his friend had gone.

Sirius swung around to watch him as he made his way back across the room. He was astonished to see Peter wringing his hands, apparently in distress, and visibly trembling.

Peter stopped by the chair he had been sitting in, and looked out the window at the evening sky. It had already been dark for a couple of hours, and the Moon would be rising at any minute. He turned suddenly to stare, impassioned, at Sirius. 'You bloody idiot!' he whispered.

'What are you talking about? Where's he gone?' Sirius asked, jerking his head in the direction of the entrance.

'The Willow, I should think. Should I get a teacher?' Peter's voice sounded small, and he looked dazed and lost.

'Has everyone gone mad in here?' Sirius's voice was raised, and faces were turning towards them again. He strained forward over the table towards Peter, face jutting upwards. 'What d'you want to get a teacher for?'

Peter leaned forward, hands on the table, and thrust his face down into Sirius's. His complexion was grey and his voice shook slightly. 'Have you lost it totally, Sirius?' he hissed. 'What do you think Moony'll do when Snape gets in there?'

Sirius spoke slowly and deliberately. 'Rip him limb from limb, with a bit of luck.' He sat back in his chair. 'It's what the bastard deserves, for what he's trying to do to Moony.'

'And what'll happen to Moony then?' said Peter, his voice still quivering.

'It's not his fault if someone deliberately goes into the Shack. Knowing what's in there. Any idiot can see that.'

Peter straightened up and stepped back from the table. 'You're a bloody headcase. I'm going to get Dumbledore,' he announced, his mind apparently made up.

Sirius was on his feet and blocking the way, fists clenched by his sides, before Peter had moved more than two paces. 'You take one more step and I'll deck you.' He could see that Peter was shaking, but the part of him that wanted to reassure his friend was overwhelmed by the heady adrenaline surge that was powering him on. There would be no teachers involved in thwarting his plans tonight.

Peter's lower lip quivered and his eyes were wide and tear-filled. 'This is mental, Sirius! Can't you see that?' His gaze flickered around the common room, then he edged closer and lowered his voice, speaking towards Sirius's chest. 'Moony'll get the blame if anything happens to Snape. And James -- he's probably gone down there after him.'

'Well, he'll be too late to stop him. I told Snape ages ago.'

'He'll follow him into the tunnel, then. You know what he's like!' Peter moaned.

Sirius looked down at Peter's terrified face. 'You're not going for a teacher,' he insisted.

'Well, at least let me go down to see if James managed to stop him! Not for Snape's sake. For James's, and Remus's. Please!' A desperate, pleading note made Peter's voice quiver again.

Peter's panic and distress were starting to eat away at Sirius's determination. He was right -- James probably would follow Snape into the tunnel, and the Shack itself, if necessary, to save him. While generally admiring James's noble streak, Sirius had always considered it an exasperating pain in the arse when it got in the way of a good plan. Now, it was threatening not just to wreck Sirius's scheme, but to put James's own life at risk in the process.

'Come on, then.' He spun around and strode quickly from the room with Peter at his heels.

Their footsteps rang along the cold, empty corridors, sounding multiplied as their feet scuffed low and quick over the stone stairs. Peter's urgency caught at Sirius and he picked up speed as he went, whirling around bends and throwing himself forward and down, down the endless flights from Gryffindor Tower. If James had caught Snape at the Willow, he must surely be on his way back by now. Unless Snape had gone into the tunnel. And James really had followed...

Sirius sprinted across the Entrance Hall, Peter scurrying behind, and burst out through the front doors to charge down the steps and across the grounds. He could hear Peter trying to speak behind him, and he turned in mid-run.

'What?'

It was taking Peter all his efforts to keep up: his hair was plastered to his brow with sweat and one hand clutched his side as he ran; his bright red face contorted as though in pain. 'Look,' he wheezed out, and half-nodded upwards. Sirius followed the direction of the nod.

The Moon was up, small and remote and brilliant in the cold winter sky. Automatically, Sirius looked for his own star, scintillating low in the south, juxtaposing even the Moon at its brightest. With a pang, he realised that Remus would be transforming by now. Not too long before they could keep him company every month -- if James didn't get himself killed first, he thought, his stomach lurching suddenly.

The moonlight washed the grounds in silver, bright enough now for Sirius to see clearly to where the Willow stood, deceptively calm on a windless night. There was no-one around.

He stopped abruptly. Peter, evidently running blindly behind him, barged into his back and sent him staggering. The force of the impact bounced the smaller boy away and he sat down heavily on the ground, then leaned back to prop himself on his elbows, his chest and shoulders heaving in a painful attempt to get air into his lungs.

'He's not there,' Sirius panted. 'Either Snape didn't go in, and James found him and took him back up to school, or else he'd gone in by the time James got here. In which case -- they're both in the tunnel.'

Over the air rasping through his throat, Peter gasped, 'We would have passed them. At school.'

'Maybe James didn't go straight back to the tower.' Sirius thought this unlikely, but every avenue was worth checking. 'You go back and see if you can find him anywhere; maybe he went back another way. I'll go down and see if he's in the tunnel.'

'Are you sure?' Peter took in large gulps of air as he scrambled to his feet.

Sirius started towards the Willow. 'Yeah. If he's not there, I'll soon find out.'

'Be careful!' Peter called from behind him. Without turning, Sirius waved in acknowledgement and sped up his run to the tree.

It took only seconds to find the branch lying near the Whomping Willow, although dodging the tree's vicious swings wasn't quite so simple, and two boughs whipped heavy blows across his neck and shoulders before he could position the stick over the knot that froze its movements. He bent down and scrambled quickly through the gap at the roots.

The tunnel below was damp and earthy-smelling, and the light from Sirius's wand-tip seemed only to throw the darkness before him into sharper relief as he hurried forward, running as fast as the low roof would allow. James and Snape must be pretty far ahead: there had been no response to his shouts under the Willow, and now he was concentrating all his efforts on the chase.

They'd all come down with Remus to see the Shack once before, in second year, and the sense of misery in the building had been almost palpable. It had made Sirius sick to his stomach to feel the pain and loneliness in the air of that desolate place, like a part of its fabric, then to see its reflection mirrored on Remus's face. It had been soon after that visit that he had come up with the idea of the animagus transformation. James and Peter had agreed instantly, and now they were so close... why couldn't bloody Snape have waited another month to go sniffing about? At least then James would have been able to transform before he ran along the tunnel, and wouldn't have to put his own life at risk to save Snape's stinking arse.

The longer he went on, the more unlikely it was that James and Snape had got back to the castle; which left him wondering what awaited him up ahead. It was at least twenty-five minutes since he'd sent Snape down here, he reckoned, and about fifteen since James had gone haring after him. Since it took over fifteen minutes to reach the Shack, moving at normal speed, Snape might already be inside, through the door and past the wards that Professor Flitwick had taught Remus to set anew every month. The wards were meant to keep Moony in the Shack, to stop him from straying into the tunnel. Although no wards on earth could hold a hungry werewolf with the scent of human prey in his nostrils...

Sirius sped up his crouching run. The tunnel was smaller than he remembered. His back ached and his lungs rasped, and it took an effort to push away the growing feeling of claustrophobia that lurked at the corners of his mind. James... he had to get James out. If Snape was already in the Shack, maybe that would distract Moony long enough for Sirius to get James away. If James would come, that was -- James and his exasperating nobility. He might even insist on staying to try to fight Moony for Snape, knowing him. In which case, they were all dead. The possible scenario could be beyond grotesque.

On and on the tunnel went, seemingly without end. The tightness in Sirius's stomach grew, and still he ran. Once or twice he thought he heard noises up ahead, but he could not stop. If it was the wolf, he would find out soon enough.

And then, from around a bend in the wall, he saw a light. For a heart-stopping moment he thought it was the light from the Shack -- until he realised it was moving, bobbing from a wand-tip, like his own. He stopped to let the glow draw nearer.

It was James. He was supporting Snape. And even allowing for the weird light bouncing off the walls, Sirius could see that both of them were deadly pale, but otherwise unmarked and in one piece.

An enormous, warming, blessed relief welled up in Sirius, and he couldn't stop a huge grin spreading across his face as he stood in the middle of the passage, waiting for the other boys to approach.

James's face was grim as he drew closer. 'Get a move on,' he snapped. 'We're not stopping.'

'Alright, keep your hair on,' Sirius laughed, turning away.

He led the way back, more slowly than he had come at first, but James's shoes clipped at his heels and he was forced to pick up speed once more, running bent double again, a stitch aching in his side.

'Do we have to run?' he asked. 'Are we being followed?'

'No, but I don't want to take any chances,' James replied curtly.

Snape had evidently been shocked into silence. Serve the bastard right, thought Sirius.

'Satisfied, then, Snape? Get what you wanted?' he called back over his shoulder.

'Shut it, Sirius!' James shouted.

Thankfulness that James was safe outweighed Sirius's annoyance at being pulled up in front of Snape, and he kept quiet. Although he was listening hard, not once did he hear a sound of howling or scuffling paws coming from behind. They half-ran, half-hobbled the rest of the way in silence.

The Willow still had to be negotiated at the other end. The branch Sirius had used to immobilise it was lying close to the tunnel entrance; but not close enough. Before he could reach it, the tree began to thrash violently, one thick branch whipping painfully across his forehead and knocking him off his feet to land hard against the trunk. The Willow stretched and heaved more savagely, as though trying to uproot itself in its efforts to batter at him, but Sirius scrambled around to jam his thumb hard into the knot, freezing the violent motions instantly.

Head throbbing, and wiping what felt like blood out of his eyes, he stood back to let the other boys clamber out of the hole. James emerged first and turned around to pull Snape out, but as soon as he was standing upright, Snape roughly shook James's hand off.

'We'd better move back,' said James, his eyes lifting to the branches overhead.

They edged out of range just as the tree agitatedly began to shift again, its shadowed branches straining and flailing menacingly against the background of the silver-lit castle walls.

'You alright?' Sirius asked, turning to James.

'Yeah. Close call, though,' James said quietly. Face impassive, he stared at Sirius as though he were about to say more, then seemed to think better of it and turned to Snape.

Snape's sleekly greased hair was tousled, his face like bleached stone apart from two livid, burning spots of colour over his cheekbones. He was visibly shaking and there was a dark stain on the front of his robes.

'What's that?' Sirius, who knew exactly what it was, was beside himself -- it couldn't ever get any better than this. Exaggeratedly, he leaned down, delight in his voice and a grin spreading across his face. 'Why Snape, you've had a little accident! Oh, that's priceless! He's pissed himself!'

The sight of Snape, stark-faced and having wet his robes, was simply too much, and Sirius started to laugh uncontrollably, leaning with his hands propped on his knees to stop himself tipping forward onto the ground. 'Oh, God, this is brilliant,' he gasped. 'Wait till I tell Moony...'

'Sirius...' James began; but that was as far as he got. A thin, high shriek cut through the air, over the sound of Sirius's laughter, then Snape's voice screamed, 'Crucio!'

The pain was so all-consuming that Sirius felt as though his entire body was on fire. Skin, muscles, bone -- every part of him was being skewered by twisting, white-hot needles. Distantly he heard James shout, but his own screaming was drowning out all other sound. He craved unconsciousness but the impossible pain continued; he wanted to die; his body was surely being torn apart...

And then it stopped.

Sirius found himself face-down on the freezing ground, shaking and cold with sweat. There were clumps of earth and grass squeezed in his tightly curled hands, and he felt a strong urge to throw up. He lifted his aching head and began to push himself to hands and knees -- and was confronted by a pair of purple, pointy-toed boots peeking out from below the hem of a robe just in front of him.

He climbed unsteadily to his feet and looked straight into the furious face of Albus Dumbledore. Peter, ashen-faced, stood just behind him, peering around his shoulder. For several seconds no-one spoke as Dumbledore coldly scrutinised the scene and the faces of the three boys in front of him. Sirius kept his eyes on the ground.

'All of you, follow me.'

Dumbledore turned on his heel and strode back towards the castle. Nose in the air, Snape swept past Sirius without a sideways glance. Sirius spat on the ground then started to trudge across the lawn to the castle doors, James and Peter falling into place on either side of him.

'Are you alright?' James was peering into Sirius's face as they walked.

'Fine.' Sirius kept his eyes firmly on the front doors. The distance to the castle looked enormous, and his head pounded every time his foot hit the ground.

'I didn't mean to tell Dumbledore,' Peter was saying on his other side. 'He was just there, in the hall... he seemed to know something was wrong...'

'S'alright.' He felt weak and shaky, and was concentrating all his efforts on walking, unaided and without vomiting, in a straight line.

They trailed silently after the headmaster and Snape until they got to the foot of the steps, when James grabbed Sirius's arm. 'Wait,' he said. Their little group stopped. James lowered his voice. 'What are you going to tell him?'

For the first time since James had emerged from the Willow, Sirius looked properly at him. He was sweaty and dishevelled, his robes were muddy, and his face was tense with concern.

'The truth,' Sirius said.

'Well... be careful how you tell it, alright? Don't say anything rash.'

Sirius gave a crooked smile. 'As if.'

James smiled half-heartedly back at him, then turned and wearily began to climb the stairs.

'James... thanks,' Sirius said to James's back. 'I mean, for getting yourself out.' He paused, then added, 'How far did you get?'

James did not turn around or break his stride. 'Almost to the end,' he said.

In silence, Sirius and Peter followed him into the Entrance Hall.

* * * * *

The four boys were called in one at a time to give Dumbledore their accounts of what had happened. Professor McGonagall had been summoned and had conjured up chairs for them, keeping them all sitting in silence outside Dumbledore's office as they awaited their turns to go in. Sirius shot malevolent looks at Snape who glared back, hatred and rage glittering in his dark eyes, until McGonagall noticed and forbade any of them from even looking at the others. Sirius sat for what seemed like an eternity, staring at the walls and floor, and wishing he could speed up time to get his summons over with.

James had gone in first, then Snape. Finally, almost two hours after Dumbledore had found them, Peter came out of the headmaster's office, keeping his eyes on the floor. It was Sirius's turn. By now his anger had dissipated, and he was feeling decidedly nervous, hoping that Snape hadn't twisted things too much in his own favour. If James and Peter had managed to give Dumbledore the background, maybe he would have a chance to tell the headmaster what really happened... He rose to his feet and knocked on the door, which opened inwards on the second rap. Slowly he entered, and the door swung shut behind him.

Sirius had been in this room before, but this time he felt none of the fascination that had so distracted and entertained him on those other visits. All his attention was focussed on the headmaster, who sat in a high-backed wooden chair behind his large desk. Dumbledore was leaning forward, forearms on the desk and hands clasped. The expression on his face was one Sirius had never seen before. It was distant and forbidding, and his eyes held no trace of their usual levity -- they were ice-blue, and bore into his own, puncturing the bolster of his self-righteousness like shards of glass.

'Sit down,' Dumbledore commanded.

Sirius moved forward to sit in a small chair that faced the headmaster's. He had intended to return the scrutiny without looking away, but found himself involuntarily staring at the pale, unmoving hands on the desk. The oppressive silence lengthened as he waited for Dumbledore to speak.

'Tell me why you did this,' the headmaster said eventually.

Sirius took a deep breath. 'I did it because of the way Snape treats Remus,' he said. 'Because he's been hounding Remus. Because he waits till Remus isn't well, then picks on him. The last two full moons, he's been making comments about Remus disappearing again. He was on the verge of telling everyone -- he wanted to get Remus expelled and I wanted to scare him enough to stop him. He said Remus was weak, not worth the name of wizard. But I wanted to make sure that he knew he couldn't hold a candle to Remus, as a wizard or as a human being. I wanted to pay him back, for Remus.'

Dumbledore regarded Sirius unblinkingly as the words chased one another out of his mouth. After another long silence, he spoke again.

'What did Mr Lupin know of your actions this evening?'

'Nothing, sir.'

'What was your intention, in doing this?'

'To protect Remus. To keep his secret safe, and to make sure Snape never bothered him again.'

'Yes,' Dumbledore said slowly. 'And had it not been for Mr Potter's intervention, Mr Snape might indeed never have bothered Mr Lupin again.' He stopped, watching Sirius and perhaps waiting for him to speak; but Sirius bit his tongue and said nothing. Be careful how you tell the truth, James had said.

'Let me clarify,' Dumbledore continued. 'What did you intend to happen to Mr Snape this evening?'

Sirius stared at Dumbledore. He didn't know how to answer this question. How could he, when he didn't even have the answer to begin with? He couldn't deny that he hated Snape enough to want him dead; but in his visualisations of the outcome this evening, Snape had been alive -- and so terrified of Remus that he didn't dare look sideways at him again. Yet if he had been killed, Sirius wouldn't have been sorry, not a bit. Though that wouldn't be the cleverest thing to tell the headmaster.

'I'm not sure, sir.' he said slowly. 'I wanted him scared, anyway. He deserved that much, at least.'

'Did you intend for Mr Lupin to kill Mr Snape?'

Sirius thought, for the first time that evening, about Remus's reaction to that particular scenario, and he closed his eyes with a shudder of horror. It was one thing for him to want Remus to give Snape the fright of his life; and it was one thing for him to want Snape dead. But it was quite another, he could see now, to put the two together, and to want Remus to kill Snape.

'No.'

Dumbledore contemplated his own white hands, still clasped on the desk in front of him. 'What did Mr Lupin say to you about his treatment by Mr Snape?'

'He was going to put up with it, until Snape found someone else to bully. He didn't want to draw more attention to himself, in case Snape found out...'

And Snape's found out now, hasn't he, a little voice in Sirius's head mocked, Snape's got what he wanted. You gave it to him, on a plate. He shook his head slightly, and pressed on.

'But Snape didn't stop when Remus tried to ignore him. That's what he's like -- he senses what he thinks is weakness, he keeps on and on.' Sirius felt his anger start to rise again, his voice taking on a hard edge. 'Like a vulture. Like a jackal,' he spat.

'Do you think Mr Lupin would have wanted you to do this?'

Sirius took a deep breath. 'No, sir. I don't think he would. But I reckoned he'd see it was worth it in the end, if it got Snape off his back.'

After a moment's silence, Dumbledore asked, 'Do you wish me to believe that personal animosity between you and Mr Snape was not a factor in this?'

Sirius was surprised, and stared into the lined face. 'Oh, no, it was a factor, alright. I mean, I hate his guts, and he knows it. He's always sneaking around after us, spying on us to see what we're up to, and trying to get us into trouble.'

He paused. It was important to get this explanation right, and that Dumbledore understood. He wanted no misunderstanding; no-one to accuse him of being manipulative, or deluded, or ignorant of the consequences of what he had done.

'But if you're asking me if I sent him to Remus because I wanted to get back at Snape, just for myself, the answer's no. I'm well able to fight my own battles. I wasn't using Remus to get at Snape for my own sake. This was for Remus's sake. To scare Snape, so he'd back off. To let him see just what he was messing with. Remus is worth a dozen of him. He's so strong and--' But his throat suddenly contracted, and he stopped. Any wobble in his voice might be taken as weakness or regret or even fear. He swallowed hard, and continued, more slowly this time. 'I just wanted to make Snape see who really is the stronger one.'

'Tell me, Mr Black. If Mr Snape had got as far as the Shack tonight, and had been killed by Mr Lupin in his transformed state, what do you think would have happened then?'

Sirius had to fight down the urge to reply that then Snape would be dead, and save everyone a lot of trouble. It was a pretty safe bet that Dumbledore wouldn't find a smart answer very funny.

'You mean if Snape was killed? Well, I suppose there would have been questions asked. But it wouldn't be Remus's fault if Snape had gone in there voluntarily, knowing what was there, would it? Anyone can see that.'

Dumbledore scrutinised Sirius's face as though looking for the answer to a question. This time Sirius was able to meet his gaze evenly, without defiance but with conviction. He believed everything he was telling the headmaster -- he was giving him the truth, as he'd told James he would. He just hoped Dumbledore realised that, whatever he decided to do to him.

Dumbledore spoke again. 'You are an intelligent young man, Mr Black. Consider this. Officially, six people know how to disarm the Willow and enter the tunnel. Those people are Madam Pomfrey, Professors McGonagall, Sprout and Flitwick, Remus and myself. If there were an official investigation as a result of tonight's incident, which one out of the six would be considered most likely to have told Mr Snape the secret? Especially if, as you say, Mr Snape had been attempting to bully Mr Lupin?'

Sirius blinked. His jaw started working, but his words seemed to turn to dust, leaving his mouth dry and his throat choking. It was hard to breathe around the huge lump that had suddenly developed inside his chest. 'I... I didn't think,' he croaked out.

'That,' replied Dumbledore, 'is evident.' He paused for a moment, then went on. 'These are weighty matters, Sirius. You, and your friends who share Remus's secret, bear a heavy responsibility. If you are unable to treat it with the gravity it deserves, for Remus's sake you would have done better not to have shared it.'

Nausea returned tenfold to Sirius's stomach. He clenched his teeth shut, concentrating on swallowing down the bitter taste that welled in his mouth, threatening to burst out. His eyes fell to the floor, to the large rug that Dumbledore's desk stood on. It was the deepest red, with a dark gold patterning that seemed to swirl and flow as he stared at it with unfocussed eyes. Dumbledore was speaking again.

'What do you feel now about tonight's events?'

'I'm glad James did what he did.' Sirius's voice sounded oddly gruff to himself. 'I wouldn't try anything like that again. But I still think Snape deserved to be taught a lesson,' he finished, looking up into Dumbledore's face again.

Those light blue eyes bore into his, as if trying to see through them this time, to see deeper into Sirius, into his mind and heart. 'Loyalty and courage are nothing without the judgement to govern them. And without that judgement, they can even become dangerous. Your desire to protect your friends does you credit. But your recklessness and impulsiveness do not. Tonight, you could have brought disaster down on all of us -- Remus, Severus, James, yourself, and all your families and friends. And, of course, on the school.'

As Dumbledore spoke, Sirius's head dropped until his chin was at his chest and his gaze fell to his lap, where his hands lay clasped. They gripped together tightly as he fought to control the storm of emotions that was breaking inside him.

Nothing would ever convince him that Snape hadn't intended to find out Moony's secret and get him expelled; and nothing would make him doubt that Snape would have had to be silenced somehow. But what he himself had done, the way he had gone about it, had put Remus and James in so much danger that Sirius almost flinched physically at the thought. James had saved them all from the consequences of his recklessness. Relief, gratitude, guilt, dread at what might have been -- all of them churned together inside him.

And there, alongside them, small, but unmistakably still there, was the tiniest glimmer of satisfaction.

Dumbledore was still talking, now to the top of his head.

'These impulses can be twisted to bring harm rather than good, Sirius, and if you do not learn to control them, there will come a point when you will not even recognise the difference between the two. Especially at this time, it is important that all of us use all our gifts, uncompromised and to the best of our ability.'

There was no need to ask what the headmaster meant. And Sirius was shocked to the marrow that Dumbledore might think there would ever be a time when he couldn't tell good from ill.

'Is there anything else you wish to say?' Dumbledore said.

'Just that James and Peter knew nothing about this till I told them tonight,' he said miserably, to his knees.

'I have already established that much.'

'And what's going to happen now that Snape knows about Remus?' Sirius asked, his head suddenly jerking up again.

'I already have Mr Snape's promise that he will say nothing of what has happened, to anyone.'

Was the old man mad? 'Snape's word?' spat Sirius. 'What's that worth?'

'It is worth the price of his not being handed over for trial and sent to Azkaban,' Dumbledore replied evenly.

Sirius blinked again.

'Have you forgotten so quickly what he did to you?' The ice-blue of the headmaster's piercing eyes seemed to warm for an instant.

'What, the Cruciatus? No -- I'm still aching. But you weren't surprised -- were you?' Now it was Sirius's turn to scrutinise the face on the other side of the desk. Surely he couldn't be that gullible.

Dumbledore turned his question back on him. 'Were you?'

'Taken by surprise, yes. Surprised, no. I know what sort of person he is. He's been building up to this since we were in first year. Before then, probably. I've never seen him use an Unforgivable before, but I'm not surprised that he would do it.' Sirius paused, then decided to plough on. 'Were you, sir?'

Dumbledore shot him a sharp look. 'My opinion of Mr Snape is not a subject for discussion. Nevertheless,' he went on, 'Mr Snape now has a secret of his own to keep, and consequently is more -- shall we say -- understanding of the need to respect Mr Lupin's.'

So Dumbledore was blackmailing Snape, Sirius thought with grim satisfaction. Too bad for Snape that he'd discovered someone who was a dirtier operator than he was. And it was more than worth suffering the Cruciatus, if it meant Remus was safe.

'But we all have our secrets of this evening to keep,' the headmaster continued. 'I must also ask for your word that no further mention will be made of this by you. Neither to Mr Snape, nor to anyone else.'

'I won't mention it to anyone, sir. You have my word.' The formality of the unusual oath sounded awkward to him; but Sirius meant every word. But...

'Remus, sir. I'll have to talk about it with him.' Shit, Moony wasn't going to be happy with him. To say the least. He'd felt confident before that he could talk Remus around, but now that he'd been made to see things from a different perspective... he wasn't quite so sure of how his explanation would go. The lump inside him seemed to become weightier, and apprehension joined it to make his stomach lurch again.

'Yes, Remus will have to be told. I would imagine that by the morning he will have little recollection of tonight's events. But... he must be told. And you will tell him. That is only fair.'

For the first time since Sirius had been summoned into the office, Dumbledore moved, pushing himself back in his chair. 'No punishments will be given over this incident, or the events that led up to it. However, I also expect to see no further repercussions in the relationship between you and Mr Snape. I need not tell you what any repetition will mean. As I said, we all now have secrets to keep, and Severus is not the only one who could find himself in serious trouble over what has happened tonight. I trust this will be a learning experience for us all. Good night, Sirius.'

The interview was over. Sirius grasped the arms of his chair and pushed himself to his feet, saying nothing to the headmaster as he left the office. He was physically and emotionally drained, and too numb to care if he'd got a punishment or not, although it was obvious that he could have been expelled or worse, if it hadn't been for James. James and his exasperating, pain-in-the-arse nobility.

There was no-one else outside; McGonagall must have dismissed them all. That meant he shouldn't have to go through any hypocritical pretence of shaking hands or apologising -- something else to be grateful for. He stepped onto the enchanted staircase that led down from Dumbledore's rooms, glad to have a breather for at least part of the way before he began the long trek back to Gryffindor Tower.

* * * * *

It was after eight next morning before Madam Pomfrey would let Sirius into the hospital wing. He'd turned up at six, having spent most of the night staring at the canopy above his bed or looking out the window through a gap in the bedcurtains. Madam Pomfrey was heading off to collect Remus from the Shack and wouldn't let Sirius wait in the ward, shooing him out with a warning not to return until breakfast time. If she had heard what happened the night before, she gave no sign -- she was her normal bustling and competent self.

James and Peter had been uncharacteristically subdued when Sirius had returned the night before. Dumbledore's prohibition on discussing the incident obviously extended to them, too, and Sirius's brief explanation of the outcome and quiet thanks to both had received gratified but ultimately muted responses. He hadn't been sorry -- there wasn't much he could have said that wouldn't have sounded like an excuse, and he had suspected he'd need enough of those when he saw Remus in the morning.

Sirius pushed open the hospital-wing door and stuck his head around it. Although the bright sun of the previous day was back, the room was still dim and the air of serenity was almost palpable. All the beds were empty except for one at the far end, which was screened off by high white curtains. Walking on tiptoe, Sirius slowly made his way down the ward.

Low murmuring could be heard coming from behind the curtains. It was Madam Pomfrey, he realised as he got closer, talking soothingly to Remus. He could hear Remus's monosyllabic replies as she questioned him about his injuries. As quietly as he could, Sirius lowered himself onto the side of the next bed and waited for her to finish.

All night and this morning he had been rehearsing how he would tell Remus, but in none of his imagined conversations had he managed to put last evening's events in a positive light. All night that annoying little voice had taunted him, reminding him that he'd given Snape exactly the information he'd wanted, and that there was no way Remus would be pleased or happy or impressed at what he'd done. A feeling he dimly recognised as dread had settled over him, and for the second time in twelve hours he found himself wishing he could speed up time and get the whole thing over with.

There was a clang of metal and a squeak of wheels, and Madam Pomfrey emerged from the other side of the curtain pushing a small trolley on which there were various bandages, scissors and dark glass bottles and jars, all arranged neatly in rows. She seemed unsurprised to see Sirius, and gave him a small smile.

'You can go in and see him now, if you like,' she said, rolling the trolley away towards a cupboard in the corner. 'He's fairly beaten up and very tired, but I'm sure he'd like to see you.'

I'm not, thought Sirius; but he got up and thanked Madam Pomfrey before finding the gap in the curtains and sticking his head inside.

Remus was propped upright with a mountain of pillows at his back. His face was ashen and drawn, and his eyes, surrounded by deep shadows like bruises, were closed. His pyjama jacket lay open, revealing a swathe of bandages that wound from clavicle to abdomen. Magical Patch-U-Up Plasters and smaller dressings covered lesser wounds and abrasions on his neck, arms and hands. Sirius's heart twisted at the sight. Maybe he ought to go away, let Remus rest and come back later...

He stood, waiting. There was nothing else that he could do.

As though sensing another presence, Remus stirred. Slowly and with obvious effort, his head turned on the topmost pillow, his eyelids flickered open and he gave a weak smile. 'Hello,' he said croakily.

'Hi, you,' Sirius replied, more jauntily than he felt, moving forward to sit down gingerly on the edge of the bed. 'How are you?'

'I've felt better,' Remus murmured. 'Will feel better... in a bit.'

Sirius's heart was pounding and he swallowed around the lump that had appeared in his throat. All the night's one-sided rehearsals of this conversation suddenly seemed ludicrous. Of course it was impossible to sit here and make small talk -- the only thing to do was press on and pray that Remus would understand.

'Snape knows.'

'What!?' Remus's entire body went rigid, his dark-smudged eyes wide and wild and his mouth frozen in an open gasp of horror. 'What?' he repeated.

'He knows, but you're safe. Dumbledore's spoken to him. He's promised not to tell anyone.'

Remus sank back against the pillows, lifting a shaking hand to cover his face. Sirius heard him struggle to draw deep, calming breaths. He waited in silence for the next question.

'We were right, then,' Remus said tonelessly. He pulled his hand away and stared at the ceiling. Sirius wouldn't have thought it was possible for his face to be more strained and worn -- but obviously he would have been wrong.

Remus suddenly sat upright, his face twisting in pain as he struggled to make himself comfortable. 'No, I'm alright,' he said, as Sirius jumped up to rearrange the pillows at his back. 'I just need...' he settled back, now facing Sirius properly. 'I just need to know. Tell me. How long has he known?'

'Since last night.'

'So he must have followed me. But how did he guess from that? Unless...' Remus's voice trailed away, his eyes gazing over Sirius's shoulder into the middle distance; then, abruptly, his attention snapped back. 'How far did he follow me?'

'Into the tunnel. Almost to the Shack.'

'My God,' whispered Remus. He shook his head. 'I... I saw him. I remember... seeing him. I thought it was a dream... because he'd been harassing me. But it was him.' He closed his eyes and shuddered. 'My God,' he said again, dropping his face into his hands.

Suddenly, Sirius couldn't stand it any longer. 'I told him how to get past the Willow.'

For interminable seconds, Remus didn't move. Then, slowly, as stealthily as a predator sensing its prey, he lifted his head and stared at Sirius. His eyes glinted with something cold and hard that Sirius had never seen in them before, something that made him shrink back involuntarily.

'I wanted him to be so frightened that he'd never come near you again, that he wouldn't tell anyone for fear of what you might do to him. I thought it was the best thing to do. I didn't realise...' Sirius knew he was starting to babble, but he couldn't stop -- he had to make Remus understand, before Remus said or did something irrevocable. 'Please, Remus. Dumbledore's told me how you would have got into trouble, but I didn't know, I didn't think...'

'Into trouble?' Remus's incredulous answer was no more than a whisper. He laughed sharply, a hard, mirthless bark that made the hairs prickle on the back of Sirius's neck. 'How could you? You stupid bastard,' he said in a low, intent voice. 'You stupid, thoughtless, ignorant bastard. How dare you? What gave you the right to tell Snape that? To show him what I was? To give him what he wanted?'

Once again, Sirius's head bowed in shame and abject misery. 'I... I thought it would work,' he faltered.

'What, that I would fucking eat him?' Sirius had never heard Remus shout before, but he was shouting now. 'Yeah, that would have worked, alright. No more Snape to bother us. Unfortunately, I wouldn't have been here to appreciate it. I'd have been executed!'

'I'm so sorry... I wish I could take it all back...'

'My God,' Remus repeated shakily. He drew his knees up haltingly to his chest, wrapped his arms around them and lowered his head. 'How did he get out?' he asked, his voice muffled.

'James,' Sirius replied quietly, furtively watching Remus's reaction. 'He went in and brought him back.'

'And where were you?'

'I went in after them, too... but a bit later... I met them coming back. Then Peter arrived with Dumbledore just after we all got out. We all went up to his office... he made everybody swear not to tell. You're safe,' Sirius repeated.

'I'm safe? Because of Snape's word?' Remus snapped. 'This must be a new definition of "safe" I've never come across. What's Snape's word worth?'

Sirius heard the echo of his own question to Dumbledore. He swallowed hard.

'He has to keep it, because if he doesn't he'll be sent to Azkaban.'

'You don't get sent to Azkaban for exposing werewolves. They give you a bloody medal, not a prison sentence.'

'It wouldn't be for that.'

'What would it be for, then?'

'For performing the Cruciatus on me.'

Remus raised his head, yellow-brown eyes wide again. The look in them this time was quite different. 'What?' he whispered.

'When we got out from the Willow... he performed the Cruciatus on me. Dumbledore turned up, and stopped him. So now Dumbledore knows everything, and he says if Snape ever breathes a word to anyone, he'll get locked away for using an Unforgivable Curse.' Sirius finally lifted his eyes to meet Remus's. To reassure him, and to make him believe. 'It was worth it. I would have taken it ten times over, to make sure you were safe.'

Remus let himself fall back onto his pillows, rubbing his hands hard over his face. Sirius could hear him breathing hard, and his chest rose and fell visibly as though he were laughing -- or crying, it was hard to tell which.

'Oh, Sirius. What a mess. What a huge, bloody, awful mess.'

They sat in silence for several minutes, Remus staring motionless at the ceiling and Sirius watching him, his heart no longer hammering, but still blanketed in the dread that lingered like a fog in winter.

'How are you now?'

The question startled Sirius, and he jumped slightly. 'Fine. I'm fine. It doesn't matter about me.'

'And James? And Peter?'

'They're fine too. We're all fine. Even Snape.' The thought occurred to Sirius that the same couldn't be said for Snape's robes, but he kept that to himself. He didn't feel much like joking now, and he was pretty sure Remus wouldn't see the funny side. 'How are you?' he asked, not sure if he wanted to hear the answer.

Remus sighed. 'I don't know. Stupefied, I think.' He wriggled back against the pillows again, wincing slightly as he tried to sit upright, and stared at Sirius, a grave expression on his bloodless face. 'Sirius. You realise about what you did, don't you?'

Sirius nodded miserably.

'I could have been executed, if it hadn't been for James. I would have been put down... like a dog. So many people would have got into trouble... And I would have deserved it, if I'd bitten someone,' he added in a low voice.

Sirius leaned forward quickly and pulled Remus to him, wrapping him in a bear hug, holding him until he could trust his voice to work properly. 'Never say that. Never,' he whispered urgently into Remus's hair. 'And I would never have let that happen. I would have told them it was me. All my doing. I would have gone to Azkaban. I would never have let them take you away.' Sirius held on grimly. He was teetering on the verge of making an utter fool of himself.

After a few seconds Remus struggled to move, and for a wretched moment Sirius thought he was trying to wrestle free. Then there were hands on his back, at his shoulderblades. Sirius squeezed his eyes shut. He gripped Remus more tightly, ignoring his injuries and his slight flinch.

When they pulled apart, Sirius dropped his gaze again.

'Sirius.'

'Mmm.'

'Sirius, look at me.'

It was the last thing he wanted to do, but he forced his head up, eyes wide and unblinking for fear of unleashing the tears that lay in wait, threatening to humiliate him. The look on Remus's face was unreadable.

'Sirius. I understand why you did what you did.'

So he would be forgiven. He closed his eyes and bit his lips, overwhelmed by a rush of relief and gratitude and a wash of other emotions surging in their wake, that seemed almost too many for him to contain. It was as though something huge were welling in him, trying to burst out of his chest.

'But I want you to promise me you'll never, ever do anything like this again,' Remus continued.

Eyes still shut, Sirius nodded eagerly.

'I don't need you to be my guard dog. I need to be able to deal with things the way I want to, in my own time, as I see fit. You have to respect that, even if you don't agree with it. Alright?'

'Yes,' Sirius replied, his voice a near-whisper again. 'I promise I won't ever try to barge in, or interfere like that, ever. Not without asking you first.' He cleared his throat. 'I mean, I'm not promising I won't hex the tosser, or anything like that.' He looked up at Remus through lowered eyelashes, and was gratified to see him smile faintly. 'But I won't be that... reckless and impulsive again. I promise.'

'I suppose that's as much as I can ask.' With a sigh, Remus closed his eyes and sank back again onto his mound of pillows. 'It could have been a lot worse,' he added quietly, almost to himself.

'At least it's got him off your back.'

'Don't push it, Sirius,' Remus said, a harder note in his voice.

'Sorry.' Sirius resisted the urge to cringe. 'I'm sorry.'

Remus cracked an eye open. 'Alright. Just you remember that.'

'I will. I promise.'

The sudden lifting of the tensions of the past twenty-four hours energised Sirius with a charge that was almost physical in its intensity. The night had been long, without doubt the longest of his life, but they had all come through it, unscathed and safe. Now, unexpectedly, he was revitalised, invigorated as though the sun had broken through lowering stormclouds in a dark sky. He clasped his fingers, stretched out his arms and groaned loudly.

Remus was watching him, still propped on his pillows, still motionless and weary.

'Do you want me to go away and let you sleep?'

'I just want to rest for a bit. I don't think I'll be able to sleep now,' Remus replied, although he looked as exhausted as he always did the morning after the Change. 'I'll get up in ten minutes.'

'I'll wait for you.'

'You get along to Transfiguration. I'll meet you later.'

'Nah. I know it all, anyway.'

Remus smiled slightly. 'Yes, I suppose you do.'

Sirius sat quietly on the bed until, as he expected, Remus drifted off. McGonagall shouldn't mind too much if he missed class this morning, and he wanted to stay in the ward. Remus didn't like to miss more than a morning of classes after the full moon, and someone usually had to rouse him before lunch. One more check reassured him that his friend wouldn't stir this side of dinnertime if left to sleep; and Sirius left the hospital wing to get himself something decent to read.

From his bedside table back in the dormitory he retrieved his copies of The Bluffer's Guide To Shapeshifting and From Man To Mouse: Transfiguration Tips For The Timid. Birthday presents from Peter, they were just light reading, not real textbooks; but Sirius felt he could do with a laugh right now.

The bell rang for the start of the first class while he was making his way back from the dorm, and he had to fight his way through swarms of students, all seemingly heading in the opposite direction to him. He was near the head of the stairs leading to the hospital-wing corridor, waiting to let a class of second-year Ravenclaws pass, when the fifth-year Slytherins came around the corner, heading straight towards him, evidently on their way to Divination. Walking on his own, behind a group of others that included Lestrange and Avery, was the instantly recognisable figure of Snape.

Sirius waited, watching him approach. He could tell the moment when Snape caught sight of him: his eyes narrowed, and his nostrils flared. Like a venomous beast about to strike, Sirius thought. The two boys eyed each other until they were level, and Snape stopped in front of him. Teeth clenched and heart racing, Sirius stared into Snape's face, willing him to speak.

There was no mistaking the look on the other boy's face. It was loathing. Sirius glowered, hate and adrenaline beating a loud tattoo in his brain. The temptation to bark out an insult felt irresistible, but he bit it down, lips pressed into a thin line in the effort to keep his mouth shut. The two glared, neither saying a word, until one of his classmates accidentally bumped Snape's shoulder on the way past, and the intensity of the moment was broken. Snape's lip curled, he stepped back from Sirius, and he was gone.

Remus was sitting up, eating a bowl of Weetabix when Sirius walked back into the hospital wing. He stopped, spoon halfway to his mouth, as the door swung open.

'I thought you'd decided to go to class after all,' he said.

'Nah, just went to get these,' Sirius replied, waving his books in the air. 'I was going to sit and keep you company. I thought you were out for the count.'

'I told you I was only going to rest for ten minutes. You never listen to me, do you?' Remus smiled, shaking his head.

'I was just being your guard dog again. Is that alright?' Sirius asked, genuinely needing to hear Remus's affirmation.

But Remus's smile didn't fade. 'Of course it is. As long as you're an obedient guard dog.'

'I'm learning, I promise.' Sirius grinned, his first true smile for what felt like days. 'Do you want me to read to you? This one's really funny.' He held up one of the books.

'Go on, then.'

Sitting in the sunlit ward beside Remus as he quietly ate his breakfast, searching through his book for all the best bits that would make Remus laugh, Sirius reflected that his friend was right: it could all have been a lot worse. It hadn't been easy not to crow over Snape about last night's prank -- there was so much he could have said, so much ammunition he had now -- but he had done it. And he would continue to do it, to keep Remus safe, and because he'd promised Dumbledore. This was his first step in proving, to himself and to everyone else, that he had self-discipline, and that he could be trusted to keep his word and to keep secrets safe. No-one would need to doubt him, ever again -- not Remus, not anyone. He would make sure of it.

* * * * *

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