The Sugar Quill
Author: Canis M. (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Out of the Woods  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.

"Gentlemen, are we ready for tonight?"

At once Sirius abandoned his pretense of doing Arithmancy homework altogether. "Tally-ho," he hummed, stretching limbs that nearly quivered with eagerness. "Let the hunt begin!"

It was that rarest of nights: a full moon on Friday, and the first time that all four Marauders would be able to romp into the wee hours without fear of sleeping through class the next day. The weather was fine, and while the October evening would be brisk, the chill was no match for furry coats and animal energy. Sirius and James, at least, were determined not to waste such a splendid opportunity. With the first Quidditch match of the season (Gryffindor vs. Ravenclaw) drawing near, James still had practice the next morning, but he didn't seem to mind. It had been James, in fact, who suggested their adventure for the evening: a game in the Forbidden Forest.

They'd haunted the fringes of the wilderness surrounding Hogwarts before, but had never tested its depths. Even Sirius agreed that to venture in at night as humans would have bordered on lunacy. As four beasts, however, it was merely reckless, and Sirius prided himself on making of recklessness an art.

Besides, he was rather pleased with the way the partnering arrangements for the game had turned out.

"Hang on, Padfoot. I want to be certain we're all clear on the rules of the chase." Round-rimmed glasses flashing, James held up his fingers and began ticking off points one by one. "The goal is to find as many fantastic beasts as possible. Sightings must be definite to be counted. The limit on fairies is ten. And this /should/ go without saying, but no Summoning."

"Question!" Sirius' hand shot straight for the ceiling of the Gryffindor common room, startling the pair of first-year girls who were studying at a neighboring table. After an exchange of glances, the girls picked up their books and moved to a quieter corner. "About the limit on fairies, sir."

"Yes?"

"Is that including yourself?"

James was unamused. With a yelp Sirius ducked under the table to avoid being pummeled. Just to the right, Peter edged his own chair sideways in an effort to evade the scuffle. "Why is there a limit on fairies?" he asked, his small eyes gone even more squinty than usual with befuddlement.

"Because they're so common," answered James, even as he reached down and grabbed at something that caused Sirius to emit an indignant squawk. "They're practically pests."

"Oh," said Peter, with a guilty glance at the Magical Creatures textbook lying unopened before him.

The brown-haired boy sitting opposite the three of them abruptly set down his quill.

"I'm still not sure about this," Remus said, his brow furrowed. Although the row across the table did not abate, he continued as if both Sirius and James were listening. "What's Sirius to do if my...alter ego...just goes charging off into the blue? I may not be of any help at all."

"Oh, come on, Moony." Shaking back shaggy hair, Sirius thrust his head up just enough to grin over the tabletop. "It's the Forbidden Forest, isn't it? The terror of Hogwarts! Teeming with terrible beasties! We'll be tripping over them no matter where we go. And with your nose and mine--" he tapped the feature in question, sniffing loudly for dramatic effect, "--Wormy and Bambi here won't stand a chance." He dodged another lunge from James, only to be caught by a cuff to the ear from behind. "Ow! Damn."

"Don't worry," Peter smiled at Remus with wan sympathy. "I probably won't be of any help, either." A second later, he bounced out of his seat with a squeak of dismay: Sirius had nearly overturned his chair from below.

"Enough of that rubbish, Wormtail," Sirius growled.

"Two pairs of eyes are bound to be better than one," said Remus, his voice level, "as long as you know what you're looking for. Which you will, although I'm not sure the same can be said for Moony."

Much to everyone's surprise, Sirius returned to his seat, propped his elbows on the table, and went very still. He gazed mournfully at Remus.

"You haven't really changed your mind, have you?" he asked. "I mean, you're not really not going?"

James and Peter remained wisely silent, but both of them turned toward Remus, who flushed faintly red.

"I just don't want to spoil the game," he murmured.

"You couldn't," said Sirius at once.

"Even if you tried," added James.

"I could close my eyes," suggested Peter, "and not look for any beasts at all."

Faced with three such soulful expressions, Remus could only bow his head. "That would hardly be fair," he said to Peter. "I'll suppose I'll go." He looked on with tolerant good humor as Sirius crowed and pounded the table. Then the warmth faded from his eyes, and he glanced toward the windows on the opposite side of the room. Outside, daylight was dimming toward the cooler hues of dusk. The others watched him, respectfully quiet as a subtle tension crept into his jaw.

"I should get down to the hospital wing," Remus said at last, "before Madam Pomfrey starts to worry." He rolled up his Potions notes neatly and stood.

"Right," said James. "We'll see you in the usual spot."

Sirius sat up straight as a well-trained puppy at heel. "And we won't be late."

With a shadowed smile, Remus left the common room through the portrait door. A short silence fell among the trio after his departure. Then Peter gave a gusty sigh and reached for his Magical Creatures text. He opened it, flipping halfheartedly through the pages without reading a single one. James leaned his arm on the table and turned to Sirius.

"Think you can manage him?"

Sirius frowned. The question sounded a shade too dubious for his liking. "What, Moony?"

"Yes. You realize that if he does do something unexpected, there won't be anyone to back you up."

"Oh, don't get your antlers in a knot," Sirius said crossly. "We'll be fine."

James eyed him for a moment more, then nodded. "I expect you will."

"Then stop fretting." Curling his lip, Sirius aimed a kick at his friend's chair. "Stupid prey animal."

The kick was affably returned. "Fawning housepet." Lifting a hand, James tapped Peter on the shoulder. "Come on, Wormtail," he said. "The game's afoot."

"A foot?"

Groaning, Sirius forged ahead of them toward the stairs to the boys' dormitory tower. The sooner their preparations were made, the sooner they could be bound for the Shrieking Shack--and the Forest beyond.

~ ~ ~

The undergrowth was rife with scent. From the moment they left the man-made trail and entered the brush, it seemed to Padfoot that all things human and known had vanished behind them, swallowed up irrevocably by the brambly dark. Mold, fallen leaves, mushrooms, the spoor of beasts a dog had never even dreamed of chasing--all these littered the ground beneath his paws.

With the flicker of one furry ear, he could still catch the distant, retreating hoofbeats of a stag: Prongs, with Wormtail perched on the crown of his head. They'd agreed in advance that James and Peter would explore south of the path that led into the woods, while Sirius and the wolf would go north. Moony had seemed confused at first, lowering his ears at the separation of his motley pack, but after a few coaxing nips from Padfoot he had bounded off willingly enough, melting into the sway of moonlight with the pure ease of belonging.

A gray tail ghosted over a fallen log ahead of Padfoot, beckoning him onward. He followed with a leap, and once again the wolf's silvery haunches glinted before him. Although the dog could not have explained why in words, a tangle of instinct and imperative made him certain that he must keep close to Moony, must not let the wolf out of his sight. The task was painless enough, and so far Moony had made it easy for him to keep up.

The clean smell and sound of water reached them long before they came upon a narrow brook. It gurgled peaceably over a smattering of flat stones, rivulets of moonlight marbling its current. The wolf shambled down to the mossy bank, lowering his muzzle to drink. He had barely lapped a drop when he suddenly twitched, yelped, and whirled about, teeth snapping in the direction of his own rump.

Astonished, Padfoot gaped at this uncommonly graceless display--then let out a yip of his own as something yanked hard on his tail. He spun--on the ground something quick and dark skittered. Moony lunged, and this time the wolf did not miss: between his paws was trapped a shrilly tittering creature that looked like a tiny brown man.

It was only an imp. Padfoot's tongue lolled out with amusement. He felt a certain sympathy for imps; although he could do without the tail-pulling, their sense of humor was not far out of line with his own.

Moony was snuffling at the captive, which chittered and flailed, beating its thumbnail-sized fists at the furry feet that held it. Padfoot gave a gentle bark, and the wolf's ears pricked. Reluctantly, as if against his better judgement, Moony lifted his paws, and with a final scolding shriek the imp dashed toward the brook. It dove into a clump of tall grass, vanishing into the safety of the leaves.

Confident that their assailant was vanquished, Padfoot bounded into the water, tail waving like a victory banner. After a moment's hesitation, Moony followed, and soon wolfish dignity was forgotten as they splashed like overgrown pups. Now and then the imp on the bank poked out its head to hiss at the invaders, but it made no more attempts to bait them. It was Padfoot who began to watch the wolf's wet tail with a speculative eye. Biding his time, he waited until Moony bent again to drink, then darted forward to snatch the dripping prize in his mouth.

Moony's snarl shook leaves from the branches above. For a moment Padfoot's innards went icy--had he trespassed one step too far?--but the jaws that clamped around his neck held scarcely half-strength, and in the wolf's scent there was no anger, only playfulness. Growling back, he shouldered his weight at Moony, unbalancing and dunking him thoroughly.

By the time they crawled out of the stream, they were both sopping. Grinning as only a dog can grin, Padfoot indulged in a good, hard shake. A few lengths up the bank, Moony did the same. They looked at each other, fur fluffed and pointing in all directions. Then they were off again, tearing through the trees toward the heart of the wild.

~ ~ ~

As the hours passed, Padfoot counted their quota of fairies and more. They found a Bowtruckle, and later heard the ear-blistering chatter of what must have been a Jarvey, although without laying eyes on it, they could not in fairness add it to the list. Still they pushed onward, in search of bigger game. With his patron moon reigning high in the heavens, the wolf seemed inexhaustible. Once, when Padfoot flagged and would have flopped down for a brief rest, Moony rounded on him, nipping at the dog's dragging feet.

To Padfoot's relief, they finally began to wind back eastward, wandering more towards the school than away from it. They had just crossed another brook--or perhaps the same one as before--when a faint odor teased his nostrils, one so singular that he drew up short.

A glance at Moony told Padfoot that the wolf had picked up the scent as well: the pointed ears lay flat, while luminous yellow eyes flickered with suspicion. Together they raised their noses and sniffed. Human or not-human? Girl or not-girl? Human flesh was what the wolf hungered for, but the flavor in the air was subtly wrong, and there were none of the false scents that humans used to cover themselves. Not-human, then. A fellow beast. Beasts were kin--and the wolf did not prey on kin. Ears leveling, Moony padded forward, muzzle lowered to let him peer into the glen that lay ahead. Padfoot did likewise, and black fur brushed silver as he sidled against Moony's shoulder.

In the space between the trees, something moved.

Horses! thought Padfoot. He caught a glimpse of four long legs, and the strange scent resolved itself into a smell familiar to his human memory. But why would there be horses in the Forbidden Forest?

Then a slender arm pushed boughs aside, and the centaurs came fully into view.

There were two of them, both small and slim-boned, one spotted, one pale blue. Their paces seemed too delicate to carry them, but still they glided on, hooves caressing the carpet of fallen leaves. Moonlight glowed on curved flanks and withers, set shimmering fire to long tails, to the twin falls of human hair that covered the creatures' unclothed backs. The dapple leaned into the dun, bending close enough to whisper, and Padfoot saw that they were clinging to one another, their arms entangled like young vines.

He turned to the wolf. Moony seemed rapt, his ears pricked. His body was taut against Padfoot's as he stared at the pair. A breeze stirred and bore first a whisper, then soft laughter like whinnies from across the clearing. Moony's ears quivered. Padfoot glanced back to the centaurs, then sank down. With a silent whine, he pressed his belly to the forest floor as though to hold himself to earth.

They were dancing, he thought at first. But it was untrue. The glance of flank against shivering flank, the fitful steps were motions too impulsive to be choreographed. No contact was anticipated, every kiss of fingers a source of startlement so great it might lead to flight--and Padfoot flinched in time with the touches, then fought the urge to push into intangible palms. His eyes tracked the slow slide of hands over glossy coats, over skin like the milk of stars.

Beside him the wolf was breathing, watching. The scents surrounding them began to change. Something sharp and musky emerged--a wild tang that made Padfoot rise from his crouch, press his muzzle blindly against the wolf's fur. There--it was coming from the centaurs, but from Moony, too--if he just got close enough he would catch it, taste it and recognize--

A twig snapped sharply beneath his shifting paw.

Parting from each other, the centaurs whirled. Padfoot froze, but in the next breath the pair darted away like deer, leaving only the stirring of shadows behind them.

The haze of odor in the air cleared. Padfoot shook his head. Moony was lying motionless, making no sound at all.

The stillness did not last for long.

As if uncoiled the wolf sprang up. A single leap carried him into the clearing, which he crossed before Padfoot could even blink. Barking in alarm, Padfoot started after him. Instead of chasing the centaurs, Moony veered crazily to the left, plunging into a thicket of pine and disappearing from sight. Inside Padfoot's head, Sirius cursed like a Jarvey, and the dog doubled his efforts to catch up.

He ran, wincing at the evergreen needles that whipped and stung his nose. The space between the trees only narrowed. A glimpse of silver taunted him from the murk ahead, and he barked again, scattering nightbirds with fright. Moony sped onward, heedless. Never before had the wolf so thoroughly ignored his packmate, and Padfoot's chest constricted until it ached.

The trail the wolf followed was unseen, zigzag, leading deeper and deeper into the wood. The interlaced boughs overhead blocked nearly all light from above. At last Padfoot gained on the wolf, straining to get close enough to cut him off or tackle him.

So swiftly did Moony stop that Padfoot almost charged straight past. He turned to the wolf with a growl, wishing he had a human tongue to shout "Explain yourself!" The he noticed how stiffly the wolf was standing, how the silver fur was bristling high. A tight, fearful whine came from Moony, but when Padfoot tried to approach, bared fangs repelled him. Golden eyes glittered in the graying dark, warning him away.

In the graying dark.

Through the weave of branches a thin glow descended. That faint light was no longer the white of pure moonlight: it was tainted with the roseate stain of dawn.

Moony's whine became a hideous sound, a sound no wolf should make.

Just as that noise erupted into nightmarish howls, Padfoot leaped. Bearing down with all his might, he shoved the werewolf to the ground before the transformation set in with sundering force.

Moony fought the change, fought him. The body pinned between Padfoot's forelegs lashed and writhed, while the wolf's eyes flared with madness, with mindless fear. Teeth snapped at his throat; Padfoot dodged them, then growled ferociously when the werewolf turned those fangs inward. Opening his own jaws wide, he seized the scruff of the wolf's neck in his mouth, holding Moony firmly enough to deny further self-mutilation.

At last dawn washed the patches of sky above evenly pale, and the beast's wild strength seeped away. When the guttural snarls faded to piteous whimpers, Padfoot released his hold and whined in sympathy.

The wolf rolled, twitching helplessly, belly bared in submission to pain. Unmoving, Padfoot closed his eyes and stood fast as boy-scent mingled with wolf-scent in the moist air, slowly masking it. He did not look down again until the paws battering helplessly at his chest became hands that clutched, then clung weakly to the thick fur of his ruff.

Remus lay beneath him, faint and white, his skin almost translucent. No sound came from him but ragged hisses of breath. His head was angled to one side, exposing a throat marked in fierce lines of red. On his shoulder were the jagged tears of another bite, still bleeding from when, moments ago, the wolf had sunk teeth into traitorous flesh.

With another whine, Padfoot bent. Sniffing at the wound, he smelled blood, hurt, and lingering fear, but no danger. /Not deep./ He lapped at the bite with his tongue, cleaning it as instinct dictated.

Pulling his limbs close against himself, Remus began to shiver.

Only then did Padfoot taste the chill in the air . The wolf's coat had kept out the cold and the wet, but Remus was hairless now, unprotected. /Naked,/ thought the part of his mind that was wholly Sirius, the part that could still rant and rail about having been so stupid as to lose track of time, to get lost, to let Moony endure this so deep in the forest, when clothing and bandages and all other useful things were back at the Shrieking Shack.

The part of his mind that was Padfoot had plainer thoughts. Suffering must be soothed. A trembling body must be warmed. And first, help must be brought. He stepped to one side, lifted his head, and barked three times, as loudly as he could. A pause, then three more barks. The sound rang through the forest, reverberating sharply among the trees. He could only hope the signal would carry; any sort of magical flare might be seen from the school, and they dared not risk discovery. But Prongs might have heard the wolf's howls, too, and if so would already be on his way.

He turned and settled then, resting his weight partly on Remus, blanketing him in black fur. After a moment, Remus shifted to curl up and wind arms tightly around him, as a child might hug a teddy bear in the wake of monstrous dreams.

"I'm all right," came the shallow whisper.

Padfoot huffed.

Remus coughed a little, then amended, "I will be." He was quiet for a time, as if he had to ration the strength to speak. At last he asked, "Where are we?"

At that, Padfoot could only flatten his ears and lower his head, doing his canine best to look chagrined.

"Ah." More coughing. "So we're lost."

The dog whimpered.

"Well, it was...bound to happen sooner or later," Remus said. Padfoot wondered at his calm. "Guess we bit off...a bit more...than we could chew this time." There was another long pause. "Still, I think...it was worth it."

Memory burned in the dog's mind. He whined once more in soft agreement.

He was unsure how long they waited--long enough for the breathing against his ruff to deepen and steady, for the clutching hands to relax their hold and begin to stroke his fur lightly. He was tempted to press nearer, to push into that touch, and only the scent of drying blood on Remus' wounds prevented him.

When drumming hoofbeats approached from the south, he lifted his head and gave another quick bark. Disentangling himself from Remus, he stepped aside and willed himself into human shape. Seconds later, a stag's head protruded from the brush. It blinked at him.

"Do you know the way back?" Sirius rasped.

Prongs dipped his head. His wide, dark gaze fell to the place where Remus lay on the ground. From his perch on the stag's antlered crown, the rat that was Peter stared as well. Something fierce rose in Sirius then, a red heat within him that would have made Padfoot's hackles rise and his lips uncurl over ready fangs. He took a step forward, placing himself between Remus and the stag. Tightness gripped his chest, and he glared. /Don't you look at him like that, either of you./

Raising one hoof, the stag shook his antlered head and pawed at the forest floor. Sirius understood the question--a testy "What would you have me do, then?"--and he nearly hissed in response.

"Get his /clothes/."

With a flicker of his ears, Prongs sprang away at once.

"Brainless ungulate," muttered Sirius. "Idiots all around." First and foremost in that group was himself. But at least the fire was fading from behind his eyes, and his blood has ceased its pounding.

It might have been unwise of him to look down at Remus then with human sight.

The bed of pine needles glimmered with dew. Morning light wrapped tentatively around the fetal curl of Remus' limbs, as if fearful of touching him too harshly. With his hair full of leaves, shadows like bruises under his eyes, his body covered only in soft shining, Remus looked just-made, like a creature born from the stuff of the forest. He might have been a changeling, a foundling washed up on the moon's tide.

Sirius knelt. He'd seen too many beautiful things in one night--perhaps it was driving him mad. With fumbling hands he pulled off his Hogwarts robes, draping them over his friend.

"Sorry," he muttered. He was not entirely clear on what the apology was for, although he felt fairly sure that he owed one. For being a careless twit? For not covering Remus up sooner? For gaping at him in the first place? Or all of the above? "We'll get you to the Shack in time, before Madam Pomfrey comes to let you out. You can ride on Prongs' back. We'll stick you on with an Adherus Charm if we have to."

Remus made a wordless sound of assent.

In the canopy above them, birds had begun to stir, sending tentative trills of song into the hush of the air. Their presence reassured Sirius: in human form his senses might be dulled, but he knew the ordinary creatures of the wood would fall silent at the approach of anything large and uncanny. Strangely, he felt no dread at all. It seemed to him that even if trolls and ogres came prowling, he would rip them all to pieces, would shred to bleeding ribbons anything fool enough to threaten the one sheltered under his robes.

He glanced at Remus. The other boy was huddled in the folds of long, black cloth, his face starkly pale.

"Still cold?" Sirius asked. It came out hoarsely, and he frowned at the sound of it.

Remus had to lick his lips and swallow before he could speak. "I'm all right," he said.

It was as blatantly untrue as it had been the first time. Remus was gripping his own arms, squeezing them as though to stop the shivers by force.

Uncertainty was hateful to Sirius. It confronted him rarely, only to bite with venom when it did. But if the boy was uncertain, the dog knew his course without a doubt. /Suffering must be soothed./

He put his hands on the earth, then spoke in his mind the words that would make the world darken and spin. There was a familiar sensation of weightlessness, then tight compression, as though his bones were being melted, hammered, and forged anew. The pressure lasted for a terrible instant, only to vanish as though it had never been.

When he opened his eyes, everything had righted itself. He was nose to nose with a startled-smelling Remus, and his hands on the ground had become sturdy paws.

Remus stared as though he were an apparition. "Sirius?"

Padfoot stepped closer and nuzzled Remus' chin, licked the salt taste from his face. Carefully he pressed up against the trembling body, offering himself. With a hitch of breath, Remus opened his arms, then buried his face in the animal comfort, the animal warmth.

~ ~ ~

It was not long before Prongs returned. "I went to the edge of the Forest," James gasped after transforming, his sides still heaving from the run, "and did /Accio Clothing/. I'd have done it from here, but I was afraid they'd snag on the trees. And I sent Wormtail on to catch Madam Pomfrey before she can get to the Shack. Told him to create a diversion."

The clothes that had appeared did not, in fact, belong to Remus. In fact, they were some sizes too big, but since they were more in the style of a student than a professor, Sirius shrugged. At least it wasn't a dress. He roused Remus, who had passed out again, and helped him to his feet long enough to pull on the trousers and shirt underneath Sirius' robes.

In the end, they did have to use /Adherus/, since Remus simply lacked the strength to keep himself on a leaping stag. Sirius performed the charm, surprised at the steadiness of his own hand on the wand, then changed into Padfoot one last time.

They kept to the woods for as long as they could, hoping to elude the eyes of early risers. When they reached the place James had left his Invisibility Cloak, Sirius hooked it onto Prongs' horns, and was treated to the sight of a disembodied deer head bobbing off toward the Shrieking Shack. By the time Sirius reached the Shack himself, James had gotten Remus into bed and tidied up the bloodstains on the borrowed clothing. Since there was no sign as yet of the nurse, they concluded Wormtail had successfully done his duty.

"Do give Peter a pat on the back, will you?" James said to Sirius. "He may have saved our skins this time."

Being rather grateful to his friend, who had asked nothing about what happened in the Forest, Sirius merely nodded.

James, meanwhile, was lifting the mysterious shirt in his hands. "You know, I think I know whose this is. He's on the Quidditch team. That's lucky--I can come up with some excuse."

"Speaking of Quidditch--"

"Yes, I'm going to be late. Ebenezer Stout will probably flay me." James looked remarkably unconcerned about his possible fate at the hands of the Gryffindor team captain. "You need a hand with him?" A nod toward the bed where Remus lay. "No? I thought not."

Sirius squirmed. "Look, I don't know what got into me in the woods, but--"

"Dogs are territorial," said James, with something like a smile. "Forget it. I've practice all morning, so I'll see you after lunch."

"Right," murmured Sirius. He decided to disregard the remark about territoriality for the moment. "Good luck staying on your broom."

With a wave, James was under the Invisibility Cloak and gone. Sirius waited until he heard the footsteps of Madam Pomfrey drawing near, then hid himself among the dust bunnies under the bed. It was a squeeze--in another year he might not be able to manage it--but for now he loathed leaving Moony alone in the Shack unless he had to.

The Hogwarts nurse was a kindly woman, if prone to steamrolling anyone who tried to disregard her orders, and by now she was well-versed in werewolf care. Her lavender pumps approached the bedside, then stopped. "Good morning, dear," she said to the bed's occupant. "Are you awake?"

An indistinct mumble from Remus.

"Not quite, I see. I am sorry to be late, but another student had a problem that needed attention. Well, it looks like this time wasn't quite so dreadful, was it? This nip on your shoulder--did you try to heal it yourself?"

Vague assent.

Sirius blinked. He hadn't done that, had he? Had Prongs? It must have been Prongs.

"I can't blame you," Madam Pomfrey was saying, "and really, you're getting old enough to be able to take care of things like that. Now, let me just put some balm and a bandage on it, and it'll be good as new."

Under the bed, Sirius fought not to sneeze as a massive dust bunny--a dust Boggart, more like--tumbled past his nose.

"You know, it does seem to me that these last few transformations have gone rather better. Am I right?"

"Yes," murmured Remus. "I think they have."

"I wonder if isn't something to do with puberty? Although I've seen nothing in the literature about that."

"Could be," said Remus, sounding perfectly earnest.

"Well, it's a thought, anyway. There you are, dear. I suppose you needn't stay in the hospital this time, although if you do go back to the dormitory, I insist that you rest."

"Thank you. I'll do that."

The mattress above Sirius shifted and creaked, and Remus' bare feet touched down on the floorboards. Sirius watched him fumble into his socks, every movement labored. Just for a second Remus' dangling hand lingered in his view, and the fingers wriggled. Then the hand vanished, and with unsteady steps the stockinged feet followed Madam Pomfrey's lavender pumps out of the room.

~ ~ ~

Back in Gryffindor Tower, Remus slept for most of the morning. Sirius had time to go down for breakfast, stuff himself on bangers and mash, bring a stash of pastries back to their room in case Remus woke hungry, write up a list of the creatures he and Moony had seen, and eventually doze off in a heap on the floor with his back braced against Remus' bed. Just as he'd begun to have a lovely dream about chicken bones, Peter came in to prattle about how he'd waylaid the nurse, using some tale of an awful bellyache from eating too many Every-Flavor Beans. When Sirius expressed appreciation, Peter fairly puffed with pride, and went on to describe in lurid detail the mooncalf he and James had spotted. After gritting his teeth for as long as he could, Sirius at last threw Peter out for making "too much bloody noise" and threatening to disturb the sleeper.

Having chased the intruder away, he stalked back to the bed, only to find a pair of red-rimmed brown eyes regarding him.

"He did wake you, the squeaky little rat." Sirius scowled at the door through which Peter had left. "I'll bite his tail off."

"'S all right." Remus drew a deep breath. His cheeks were pale, as though he'd been drained of most of his blood, and his voice was dull with weariness that sleep had done nothing to assuage. "I should...eat something."

"I brought up some pastry-like objects," said Sirius. "And there's Chocolate Frogs." Remus made a grateful noise into his pillow, but showed little inclination to move. Watching him, Sirius gave in to the impulse to sit down on the edge of the bed. He settled onto the coverlet with one leg half-folded, the other dangling over the side of the four-poster. There was plenty of space; the beds in the dormitory were enormous, and Remus never seemed to take up much room under any circumstances.

"I've tallied our results, too," Sirius added.

At that Remus turned his head to blink upward, bleary but interested. Reaching to retrieve his handiwork from the floor, Sirius displayed a piece of parchment which proclaimed, in bold, dark script:

BOWTRUCKLES: 1 CENTAURS: 2 FAIRIES: 10 IMPS: 1

And on a separate line:

WEREWOLVES: 1

Though his eyes were still blurry, Remus began to smile. "I doubt James and Peter'll let you count me."

"Why not? You're a magical creature."

"Well, then, there's no reason they can't count me as well. They saw me just as clearly as you did."

"Oh," Sirius said, "bollocks." He stared crestfallen at his list for a moment, then shrugged. "I still think we won. Even if Wormtail and Prongs did see a mooncalf."

"A mooncalf?" Remus lifted a hand to rub at his face. "Ungulates of the Forest, unite."

Sirius found this unreasonably funny, and at once began imagining the Forbidden Forest Ungulates Anti-Defamation League. "Just think of the speeches they'd give. Downtrodden magical ungulates, rise up! On cloven hooves we shall gallop our way to victory!" He snorted at the notion.

Remus smiled too, but when he spoke, it was nothing to do with ungulates.

"Those centaurs," he said.

Sirius glanced down. It was the first that either of them had mentioned it. Remus was staring toward the ceiling, his gaze unfocused. "They were both...fillies, weren't they."

He thought about it for a moment, recalled the distinct curves that had shaped the centaurs' human torsos. "Going by the look of it, yeah. They both had knockers, anyway."

"I didn't know...I mean, I never thought..."

"Thought what?"

Remus let out a heavy breath, as if suddenly too weary to speak further. "Never mind. I don't know what I thought."

Still studying his hands, Sirius decided to risk sounding like an utter fool by saying exactly was in his head. "I thought they were nearly too lovely to bear," he mumbled.

He felt Remus watching him, heard the agreement in the other boy's voice when he spoke. "They were that." He dared to glance up; their eyes met. "Think they saw us peeking?"

"Dunno." Sirius lifted his arms in a mighty stretch. "Even if they had, what would they have seen? A gray wolf and a black one?"

"Not to burst your bubble, Padfoot, but you're not a wolf."

"I could've been."

"Then why aren't you?"

He had never told Remus the real reason, nor was he about to tell it now. "I should think it's obvious, really. A dog's more versatile. A wolf--or any wild creature, for that matter--can't just go trotting down the streets of Hogsmeade, now can he? Imagine if Prongs tried it. But a domesticated animal can."

"Domesticated, are you?"

Sirius opened his mouth to retort that at least he was housebroken, but the words caught on his lips and melted at the golden warmth in the eyes gazing up at him. They stilled him, stole his breath, and scattered all his thoughts but one.

/Not like the moon at all, his eyes./ The moon shone from reflected light, but these eyes burned from within.

Quietly Remus shifted to lie on his side, his body curved towards Sirius. "After last night," he murmured, "I have my doubts about that." The eyes shut then, damping that candescent glow. Sirius breathed again, but otherwise made no sound. Bracing one hand on the bedclothes, he leaned down to peer at Remus intently.

Was this closeness the kind he suspected it might be, or was he out of his mind for even thinking of doing what he was thinking of doing? Girls, sure, he'd kissed a few, and gone a bit further in the name of exploration--the kissing had been wet and awkward and tolerably nice, and the rest of it mainly awkward. But this was Remus, his best friend after James. No, not even /after/ James, not really, since they were in two different categories, weren't they? James was James, someone he'd known forever, someone who'd pulled pranks and taken detention and fought Snape's Slytherin cronies with him, someone who might as well be his brother, while Remus was--Moony was--

When Remus opened his eyes, the wolf was in his gaze. Sirius froze. Slowly Remus reached, touched, closed his hand where the black robes fastened, just below Sirius' throat.

--another sort of creature altogether.

From the stairway outside came the thunder of voices and ascending feet.

"And BAM! a Bludger socked right into him--square in the jaw--thought it was going to knock him off his broom--"

Sirius jerked upright, pulling out of Remus' grip just before the door burst open. In trampled a stampede of James and one of his Quidditch teammates, Peter on their heels. James was grinning wildly, his hands outflung in gesticulation, his glasses all askew--until he glanced toward the bed where Sirius sat. With a hiss he pulled up short, causing Peter to collide with his backside and stumble. The other boy, a tall Beater named Justin Middletree, took a hasty step backward, perhaps unprepared to come face to face with a violently glaring Sirius Black.

"Damn. I didn't think--" James craned his neck. "Moony, are you awake?"

"I am now," said Remus, his voice weak but precise.

Wincing, James herded the other boys back towards the stairwell. "Sorry. Sorry, Middletree. Lupin needs his beauty rest. We'll go back to the common room. Just let me get that book." After a hurried rustle through his things, he pulled out a slender volume and made for the door in the other boys' wake. At the last instant he turned, surveyed the pair on the bed once more, and met Sirius' stare without an ounce of trepidation. Cupping his hands around his face, he mouthed something clearly, then disappeared through the doorway, leaving them alone again in the room.

The eyes that tilted sideways as Remus glanced at the door had returned to an utterly ordinary, sleepy brown. For a wild instant Sirius wondered if he had only imagined them looking otherwise.

"Did he say something else?" asked Remus.

Ducking his head so that his bangs tumbled rakishly over his eyes, Sirius looked down. "I think it was 'Draw the curtains, you twit.'"

Remus did not quite smile. "Clever idea," he murmured. "For an ungulate."

Sirius barked a laugh, glad to share the relief of it. The prickles did not entirely fade from his spine, but his pulse stopped hammering quite so furiously. Going on all fours, he crawled toward the headboard to free the bedcurtains that Remus had--as always--neatly fastened back the previous morning. With a hushed swoop they came loose, obedient to his tugs. He repeated the process with each side until the bed was cloaked in velvety green. Only a few glimmers of light filtered through the fabric, as if through the boughs of a dense, leafy grove.

Air seemed very scarce to Sirius. He felt his way over the bedcovers to the warm lump that was Remus. Yes, he thought, as his fingers met an outstretched leg, I must be going mad. Too much moonshine. Too many beautiful things in one night.

In the close, green darkness, Remus' voice was low. "Is Padfoot going to keep me warm again?"

Sirius swallowed. "If you'd rather," he said, leaning toward the source of that voice. For a fleeting breath, he caught that unknown scent, the one of the centaurs in the glade, of hunger irresistible. "But I thought I might have a go."

A hand caught his wrist, pulled him close. Sirius soon found that what was simple for Padfoot could be easy for him, as well. The shared heat, the comforting nearness of bodies, the smell he knew best of all--those things were the same. And certain things--other things--were even better, like the way Remus' head tucked perfectly under his chin.

"You'll do." The words were no more than a stirring against his neck. "You'll do."

If this was delirium, Sirius decided, he wouldn't miss reality a bit.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

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