A/N: Thanks to everyone who reviewed, I was quite overcome. :) Something I forgot to mention in the last author note is that every chapter contains at least one subtle/not-so-subtle Terry Pratchett reference. My undying admiration goes to anyone who can spot all five.
Thanks, as always, to Arianrhod for the beta.
This thing called love, it cries (like a baby)
In a cradle all night
It swings, it jives
It shakes all over like a jellyfish
I kinda like it
Crazy little thing called love
Under normal circumstances, James would have been the first to notice that there was something up with his best friend. Unfortunately, these were not normal circumstances; what with his job, Order business, and a wedding to prepare, he hadn’t exactly been spending all his time observing Sirius’ behaviour. And if he had been behaving oddly – well, that was normal behaviour for Sirius.
He had dismissed Peter at the wedding (in fact, it occurred to him that he really ought to apologise, he’d been rather hard on his friend), but when he had returned from honeymoon and got back into the normal swing of things, he found himself dwelling more and more on Peter’s idea. To tell the truth, memories of his conversation with Peter kept intruding throughout the honeymoon. Not all the way through, obviously. There were quite a few moments when he was rather pleasantly distracted. But there were a few occasions when he was on his own, or lying awake at night, and he would remember the utter conviction in Peter’s voice; then he would remember Sirius’ behaviour at the wedding, and the tiniest bit of doubt would creep in. Come to think of it, that speech was a little odd, wasn’t it? What was all that stuff about socks?
He really wished he could talk to Lily, but that was out of the question. How on earth could he start that conversation? Hi, darling! Um, Peter, you know, the person I never listen to, has this completely insane theory that I don’t believe for a moment, but I’m bringing it up anyway just so you can reassure me... No. Not happening.
He also really didn’t want to talk to Lily about it because he had a feeling that she would ask him why the idea bothered him so much, and it wasn’t a question he was sure he could answer. He honestly didn’t know why it bothered him so much. It wasn’t as though he was homophobic; after all, his best friend was, actually, gay, not to mention supremely unselfconscious about the fact. But he kept remembering that day when Sirius walked into the dormitory in fifth year and calmly announced that, after a bit of experimentation and a lot of thinking, he had decided that he preferred boys to girls if that was quite all right with everyone. Peter’s reaction had been to laugh; then, when he realised that Sirius meant it, he had blushed and stammered, but seemed to accept it very quickly. Remus...well, it was never easy to tell what Remus was thinking, but he had seemed utterly unsurprised by the news. He had merely clapped Sirius on the back and made some sort of joke about not making it known to the school at large, or the female half of the third year might throw themselves off the Astronomy Tower.
James, on the other hand, was taken aback. Very taken aback. There was a slight sense of hurt that Sirius hadn’t told him first. And, if he was being completely honest here, his first thought was “he doesn’t fancy me, does he?” It wasn’t a thought he was particularly proud of, but it had been his instinctive reaction. He had done his best to act completely normal, however, and within about a month his friendship with Sirius was much as it ever had been. It took him very little time to get used to Sirius’ next announcement, at the beginning of fifth year, that he was in love with Alistair Turner; Head Boy, Quidditch captain, and practically a god to half the school. It took him a great deal longer to get used to the idea that Alistair returned Sirius’ feelings – the relationship was only known to a few select people, but those who knew would probably never recover from it. James couldn’t help smiling, even now, remembering the rows, the tears, the hysterics...in hindsight it was funny, but they had all been heartily relieved when Alistair had left the school and Sirius had moved on with his life.
But this was different. That initial negative reaction had probably more to do with shock than anything else, plus a sort of fear of the unknown. Everyone was aware that that sort of thing went on, but it was just Not Done to talk about it, especially at Hogwarts, where privacy was rare enough to be precious. Sirius had never been one to do what was expected of him, but James had still been more shocked than he cared to admit, even to himself.
But he had got used to it now and it genuinely didn’t bother him anymore. So why was he so freaked out by the conversation he had with Peter? Especially since he didn’t even believe Peter’s idea. Okay, perhaps there had been some doubt at first, but after a lot of three-in-the-morning thinking, he had come to the conclusion that it just didn’t make any sense for Sirius to be in love with him. Why now? He supposed it could be argued that it was because of the wedding and everything, but he’d been with Lily for nearly three years now, and Sirius had never acted like this before.
Eventually, he decided he was looking at the whole thing from entirely the wrong angle. There could be any one of a hundred explanations for Sirius’ behaviour; what he really needed to do was talk to his friend, find out what was wrong. After all, this was Sirius. The two of them had been best friends practically from the day they had met. Everyone said they were as close as brothers and they had certainly never kept secrets from each other. Why would one of them start now? (Besides that. That wasn’t an explanation he was prepared to accept right now.)
This very simple plan of just talking to Sirius, however, soon turned out not to be simple at all, for he quickly found out that Sirius was avoiding him. At first he was able to convince himself that he was just being paranoid, but after the tenth conversation consisting entirely of the words ‘hi, can’t stop, talk to you later’, he could no longer delude himself.
He had an interesting conversation with Remus after about a fortnight of this. He hadn’t meant to – he had actually come to their flat to look for Sirius – but Sirius was out; a situation that was apparently something of a regular occurrence lately.
“In fact,” added Remus with a grin, bringing two steaming mugs of tea to the table, “if it wasn’t for the occasional wet towel on the bathroom floor, I’d suspect he’d moved out without telling me.”
The two friends sat in companionable silence for a while, James wondering how to start the conversation, when Remus suddenly spoke.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you, actually. You don’t know what’s up with Sirius, do you?”
James nearly spat out his tea. What did Remus suspect? Worse still, what did Remus know? He looked suspiciously across the table, but, as usual, Remus’ face betrayed nothing of his thoughts.
“Have you been talking to Peter?” James said eventually. It seemed a safe enough question.
“Yes, as a matter of fact,” replied Remus. “But I noticed something before that.” He took a sip of his tea, looking thoughtful. “I was waiting for Sirius to tell us – you know what he’s like, he can’t keep anything to himself for long – but it’s just getting ridiculous now. I can’t count the number of times in the last few weeks that Sirius has gone out as soon as I’ve come home.”
“So...he’s avoiding you too?” asked James, trying not to sound too relieved. If he’s avoiding Remus too, then maybe it’s not...what Peter said.
“Is he avoiding you? Damn,” said Remus with a wry smile, “I’d hoped you could tell me what’s wrong.”
James shrugged. “Afraid not. I’m sure he’ll tell us eventually though.”
Remus opened his mouth, looking as though he was about to say something, then closed it again.
“What?” said James.
“What were you going to say?”
“I wasn’t going to say anything.”
“Yes you were, you were going to say something.”
“Honestly, it wasn’t anything. Just a stupid idea. Biscuit?” James watched him suspiciously, but knew better than to press the point. They had all learned a long time ago about Remus’ talent for keeping secrets.
They stayed on safer topics for the rest of the conversation before James made his excuses and left, feeling more confused than ever. He was now less convinced of the validity of Peter’s idea, but far more convinced that something really was wrong with Sirius.
He did his best to act as normal as he could, but some of his thoughts must have shown themselves, as Lily kept giving him funny looks throughout dinner. She said nothing, however, until they were sat in the living room, enjoying a last glass of wine before the fire.
“I’m not going to make you tell me what’s wrong,” she suddenly said, almost causing James to drop his glass in surprise. “I’m just going to remind you that I’m your wife, and it was only a few weeks ago that you made all sorts of promises to me in front of all our friends and relatives. I’m going to leave it entirely up to your own conscience whether you want to keep things from me.”
James rolled his eyes. “Subtle, Lily, very subtle.” She twisted round to look at him.
He sighed. “You don’t need to worry, it’s nothing bad.” I hope, he added to himself. “I’m just a bit worried about Sirius.”
“Anything specific, or just Sirius in general?”
“I don’t know, to be perfectly honest.”
“Talk to him then. Find out what’s wrong.” Lily settled back on his shoulder, apparently satisfied with this conclusion. James stared at the fire, wondering what to do. What I need, he thought, is a plan...
Phase One of said plan went off without a hitch; James laid in wait for Sirius outside his office one Tuesday lunchtime. As Sirius left the office, slouching, shuffling his feet and glowering at the wall opposite, James fell into step beside him.
“Hello stranger!” he said, grinning as Sirius jumped and nearly dropped his papers. “I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere before, but I just can’t remember where…”
“Laugh? I almost started,” said Sirius dryly. “What are you doing here, Prongs?”
“I’m kidnapping my best friend, whom I haven’t seen properly in months, forcing him to have lunch with me and tell me what’s wrong.”
Sirius stopped walking and turned to James, a frown appearing between his eyebrows.
“What do you mean? There’s nothing wrong.”
“Well then, if there’s nothing wrong, you haven’t been avoiding me and so we can go to lunch. And don’t tell me you have work to do or anything like that, as I won’t believe a word of it. You’re coming with me and that’s that.”
And ignoring Sirius’ spluttered words of protest, James seized his best friend by the elbow and led him down the hall.
Half an hour later, they were firmly ensconced in the Leaky Cauldron, sitting in an uncomfortable silence. Sirius was sulking, staring at the table, and James, for the first time since he was eleven, found himself at a complete loss of what to say to his best friend. Tom the landlord came and took their order; then James decided enough was enough, and it was time to get right to the point.
“Well,” he said cheerfully, “isn’t this jolly?” Well done, James.
Sirius gave him a Look.
“No, not really.”
“Look, Padfoot, are you going to tell us wh...”
“I’m fine, James,” Sirius cut in. “Honestly I am.” And he gave James such a Sirius-like grin that his confidence was shaken for a moment. Maybe we were wrong...
Sirius went on. “I’ve been working really hard lately – Dugdale is such a slavedriver, and he’s more paranoid than Moody. And I’ll tell you something else.” He leaned across the table, looking solemn. “It’s all flaming paperwork! Some people will tell you Auror training is a life full of danger, all about moonlit chases over the roof tops and hand to hand fighting with Dark wizards. These people are lying. The life of an Auror is about filing reports. The closest I’ve come to danger recently is a vicious paper cut I got on my finger.” James laughed in spite of himself, and, although he was far from convinced, he couldn’t help relaxing.
“So can we please talk about something else?” said Sirius with a pleading grin.
“What do you want to talk about?”
“How about...the surprise party you’ve got planned for my birthday next month?”
“You’re not getting a surprise party, Sirius.”
“Aha!” Sirius tapped the side of his nose. “Keeping it secret so it’s a proper surprise? Good job.”
“So if I tell you that we have planned a surprise party for you, would you believe that we haven’t?”
“I would, except that it would obviously be a double bluff, as you would know I wouldn’t believe you, so either way I’m getting a party.”
James shrugged. “It’s your funeral.”
“No,” said Sirius thoughtfully, “I’m pretty certain it’ll be my birthday. You can tell the difference, you know, because of the lack of coffins and crying, and the presence of presents.” He grinned. “Hey, presence of presents, get it?”
“Will you be serious for one minute?” said James in frustration. “Turn that into some sort of pun,” he added, “and I will be forced to hit you.”
Sirius looked as though he was sorely tempted to disobey, but luckily for him, he chose not to. His expression grew serious. “The truth?”
James nodded. “The truth.”
“Well...I’m not going to pretend everything’s rosy, because it isn’t. You and I both know that. Everything’s in a right bloody mess right now, and chances are it’ll get worse before it gets better.” Sirius started shredding his napkin, possibly out of nerves, possibly in order to avoid James’ eyes. “For some bizarre reason, I chose to work for the Ministry, which is in a complete panic – no one trusts anyone else, no one knows what’s going on…On top of this, my best friend just got married, and although I’m very happy for him, it’s still a bit weird, especially considering we only left school a couple of years ago. I hardly see any of my friends any more…”
James had to interrupt at this point. “Are you honestly trying to tell me that you haven’t been avoiding us?”
Sirius paused. “The point is,” he said slowly, “there is nothing specifically wrong with me that involves you in any way.”
“That’s not an answer.”
He shrugged, and began to neatly pile up the remains of his napkin. “It’s the only answer I can give you.”
James opened his mouth to argue; then closed it in defeat. Something told him that this was all he was going to get, at least for today. First Remus, now Sirius...if Peter starts keeping secrets from me too, I’m giving up and finding some new friends.
The rest of the meal passed pleasantly enough; by some sort of unspoken mutual agreement they stuck to the subject of Quidditch, arguing cheerfully over whether any team had a chance of standing in the way of the Magpies’ title bid this season. James could almost convince himself that Sirius was exactly the same as he ever was. He still had that nagging feeling that something was off-kilter, but he successfully suppressed it for the moment. Though tomorrow is another day... He managed to talk Sirius into coming over that evening for dinner, and was reassured by how little resistance he put up. Eventually, Sirius looked at his watch and gave a sort of yelp of surprise.
“I’m late! Dugdale’ll kill me.” He got up from his chair and looked beseechingly at James. “Do you mind paying the bill, Prongs? I haven’t any money on me.” James agreed, rolling his eyes. It appeared that everything really was back to normal.
As Sirius walked out of the door, James suddenly remembered something and called after him. “I forgot to ask, what do you want for your birthday?”
“Socks!” Sirius called back, not bothering to turn round.
“Yep, lots of thick woolly socks.”
James sat at the table, staring at the door which Sirius had gone through. Socks? he thought blankly. What the hell is the deal with the socks?
He spent the rest of the afternoon sitting at his desk, staring into space and getting absolutely nothing done. Forgoing work in favour of replaying their conversation over in his head, by the end of the day he had a strong desire to beat his head against the wall. He wasn’t denying that it had been great to have a proper conversation with his best friend for the first time in what felt like months, but throughout he had had the sense that Sirius was almost trying too hard to act normally. At least one good thing had come out of the experience; he now had no doubts whatsoever that Sirius was keeping something from him.
As five o’clock ticked ever nearer, he laid his head on his arms and began to think of his next move.
Time for Plan B...