The Sugar Quill
Author: Gehayi  Story: Stopped  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.

Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros

Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

Author's Notes: Yes, there is such a place as Mortlake. It's a riverside portion of the Royal Borough of Kingston-on-Thames in London, and is an odd mixture of an industrial present (it's on the flight path from Heathrow, among other things) and an elegant townhouse past. It was home, at one point, to the famous alchemist Doctor John Dee, who died there in 1608, which gave me the idea of having a wizarding neighbourhood in Mortlake. The blue house at Number 1, Thames Bank, which I gave to James and Lily, also exists--on one side of it lie Mortlake Brewery and a landmark pub called The Ship, while on the other side are historical buildings.

Carna Corruptis and Teratius may be found here at The Stroppy Professor. They may not be canonical Unforgivables, but they make complete sense.

Dorcas Meadowes is mentioned in OotP. We know nothing of her looks or her house at Hogwarts; all we know is that she was a member of the first Order, and that she was killed by Voldemort personally some time prior to Halloween 1981.

Many thanks to Underlucius for the beta-ing and Britpicking.

***

Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
Where do the black trees go that drink here?

Crossing the Water
by Sylvia Plath.


After Voldemort destroyed Dorcas Meadowes before his eyes, Peter went mad.

There was nothing particularly dramatic about it. He simply--stopped. He could not cease breathing (for Voldemort did not permit his slaves the luxury of suicide), so he did the next best thing. He took his mind, with its incessant, cruel, clamouring thoughts, and hung it on a coat rack. Then he folded his emotions, put them in a chest of drawers, locked them away, and deliberately mislaid the key.

If he had been able to reason, he would have called the madness a blessing. After months of guilt and torment, it was a relief not to have to think about what he had been and done and become. Not feeling was better than noticing something Dorcas had touched, savoured or loved, and experiencing yet again (but always for the first time) the shock-jolt of the emptiness of a world without her, the exposed and open wound of grief.

St. Mungo's was different; he could concentrate there, though he couldn't feel. Make this potion. Heal this broken leg. Cure this fever.

It was a tolerable world. It made sense. No one asked the impossible. No one said, Watch your friends go off on missions for the Order, and pretend that you'll see them alive again. No one ordered, Do nothing while the woman you love is taken apart in front of your eyes. No one demanded, Become a traitor--and live with the guilt.

The forty-eight and seventy-two-hour days of a third-year Healer trainee were far easier.

He ghosted through the world, feeling nothing, thinking little. He did whatever he was asked--he didn't have the energy to argue, and anyway, nothing mattered, not really. He parroted responses to the randomly inquisitive queries of others: Hello. Isn't it a gorgeous day? Yes, I'm fine, how about you?

No one guessed he was a ghost. At one point he overheard McGonagall telling Moody that the Order had been good for those four Gryffindors of hers--they'd been such reckless practical jokers once, and they'd become such quiet, brave, mature men. Peter might have laughed if he could have remembered how.

Then, at the end of an Order meeting about a month and a half after little Harry had been born, James invited the three of them over for dinner.

Sirius, naturally, was the first to respond. "Excellent idea, Prongs!"

Remus, as always, was more practical. "Does Lily know about this, James? She just had a baby a month ago--"

"Six weeks!"

"And she's probably exhausted. Babies take up a lot of time."

"It was Lily's idea," James said, with a virtuous air. "She says that the three of you haven't been over often enough to see your new godson--and yes, Pads, I do know that you're the official godfather."

Sirius muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, "Damned right."

Remus looked thoughtful. "Hmm. Well, as long as Lily doesn't mind..."

"She insisted, mate." James put on his most tragic expression. "Come on, you're not going to say no, are you? She'll tear me to shreds."

Peter had a sudden vision of flesh ripping and rending under the skin-slashing Scindo curse. For a moment, James's face melted into that of Dorcas--of the inhuman thing that Dorcas had become, thanks to Voldemort--and then Peter was staring into large, brown, familiar eyes in a monstrous face and he could feel the Cruciatus curse reverberating through his bones...

No.

Grey fog filled his mind, blotting out Dorcas's ruined face. He sighed with relief. A short episode, this time.

James peered inquiringly at him. "Hello, Peter? Are you with us? For a minute you looked as if you were going to throw up."

Peter stared up at James blankly. It hadn't occurred to him that he would have to take part in this conversation.

"Uh...yes," he said weakly. "Sorry. Tired."

Remus shot him a worried glance. "You should get more sleep."

Peter felt as if the words were being dragged from him, inch by inch and yard by yard. "I work at a hospital. I'm a third-year medical student. There's no time."

"You do get days off, though, right?" James demanded.

"...yes..."

"Oh, well, that's simple enough," said Sirius. "Schedule the dinner for Peter's next day off. Fortunately, I don't need days off--"

"I suppose it does help be a free-lance journalist who's also filthy rich," Remus said, an amused smile curling his lips. "Like Clark Kent with Bruce Wayne's money."

James and Sirius stared blank-eyed at Remus. Peter could have explained, but just the thought of trying to clarify Remus's comment drained him right down to his bones.

James finally shrugged. "So when's your next day off, Peter?"

Peter made an effort to focus. A few dozen concepts crawled through his mind. For a moment, he couldn't quite recall what a day off was. And why did it matter? Why did James care?

He couldn't think of a single reason that James would care. Nevertheless, he answered--though merely to escape the conversation so that the nice grey fog could return.

"The twenty-eighth," he said at last. "I think."

"Good!" said James. Then he turned to Sirius and Remus. "All right for you two?"

As if hearing muffled echoes of distant waves, Peter dimly registered vague murmurs of assent. Mentally, he sighed. The world was going away again, and he would have to leave before it did or his friends would think something was wrong.

And of course, something was. Something was hideously, monstrously wrong. But not-thought and non-emotion weren't wrong. They were just the only things that made the wrongness bearable...for one more day, at least. Always for just one more day.

His friends would never understand that sometimes you had to go crazy to stay sane.

The other three were laughing now, probably about some joke he'd missed. Peter watched them, feeling a million years old. They can laugh, he thought with colourless wonder. They can still laugh.

"Sorry," he said, forcing the words out between numb, unresponsive lips. His head was pounding so loudly that he knew he had to be shouting, but his traitorous ears insisted that he was barely whispering. "Really tired…think I might be coming down with something…better make it an early night…"

"You don't look well," Sirius said, squinting slightly in Peter's direction. "Maybe I should go talk to your bosses at the hospital, tell them to lay off you for a while." He grinned. "We journalists are very good at getting people to do what we want."

No, Peter wanted to beg. No, Sirius, don’t. I've got by so far, but if you point out to them that I'm not as strong as I used to be, they won't be able to miss it, and then where will I be? Out of the training program for Healers and out on the street. I'd never be allowed to heal if they knew I was...broken. And that's the only thing I've got that makes me feel like--like I'm not a waste of space. Please, Sirius.

"...it's all right," he whispered. "No need. Jus'...tired."

"Well, if you're sure." Cheated of a potential battle, Sirius sounded very unsure indeed.

Peter nodded. It took immense effort; his head was as heavy as iron. For a moment he half-thought that his neck would snap from the weight, and that would be the end.

There was more. A lot more. Peter noted the sound of syllables, if not the actual meaning of the words. But then, he didn't really need to know what they were saying; he could read their expressions clearly enough. James, trying to be the patient leader but not quite able to hide his annoyance at Peter's vagueness and exhaustion. Sirius, both puzzled and irked (and that was always a dangerous combination). Remus, aware something was a bit off with Peter, but equally sure that a good night's sleep would put things right.

Smile and nod, nod and smile. And sidle toward the door.

Murmuring something about catching the Knight Bus home, he paused at the door, lifted his arm--Merlin, it weighed a ton!--and attempted to wave a cheerful goodbye.

Mercifully, the Knight Bus arrived a few moments later, bearing only a few passengers. Peter arrived at his flat near the hospital little more than a half hour later.

He spent the night in a battered armchair in the living room shivering beneath a faded, unravelling, orange-and-white afghan and a threadbare quilt, wishing that wizards' flats could be lit by something brighter than wandlight and less hazardous than candles.

And as he wished, he tried zealously to avoid looking at the shadows lurking in the corners of his flat. He tried not to see the plain but loving face of his Dorcas melting painfully into something hideous and inhuman that stank of putrefaction. He tried not to gaze at the slit-pupiled, multifaceted eyes that were full of screams. He tried not to feel Crucio, Carna Corruptis, Teratius ripping his mind and body apart again as they had the previous winter. Above all, he tried not to hear Voldemort's high-pitched insane laughter.

He sat in the near-dark till dawn, staring at the pale light provided by his wand, and hoping--without any real hope--that the merciful grey fog of not-thought and not-feeling would return soon.

It was a long and terrible night.

***

Peter did not, precisely, forget about James's invitation. Rather, he was unaware of time passing. Each day, which appeared to be hundreds of hours long, melted identically into the next--like water colours flowing together to form a sea of muddy brown.

There were still clocks, calendars and schedules in the outside world, of course, and Peter made an effort to comply with such oddities, especially while at St. Mungo's. Yet at the same time, he knew that time was not real any longer. The seasons had not changed or passed since last December, when Voldemort had captured him; "spring," "summer" and "autumn" had become conventional but meaningless sounds. It was always bleak midwinter now, and always bone-chillingly cold.

Sleep was the best way to escape the endless winter. He couldn't always escape the memories--Dreamless Sleep potions caused mental instability if taken too often---but if he wanted to sleep, it was either that or transform into a rat. And considering how Dorcas had died, transforming himself into something not human was unbearable.

Consequently, Peter was sound asleep when James's head appeared in his fireplace on the twenty-eighth of September

"Wormtail!"

The hated nickname, spoken in a hiss, jolted Peter awake. No. Not him. Please, God, not him.

Not that there was any real point in praying to God any more. God didn't listen to the damned.

"Wormtail, damn it, where are you?"

Peter glanced fearfully over at the fireplace, then let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding. James. Good.

Very carefully, his mind skittered away from the fact when his best friend said his nickname, he heard Voldemort's voice. He did not want to think about how completely Voldemort owned him.

"James?"

James, looking irritated, peered at Peter over the tops of his glasses. "Peter, what are you doing home? I thought you were coming to dinner with Lily and me. Pads and Moony are already here."

Peter frowned. "I thought that was next week?"

Or next month, his mind added. Or next year. Sometime in a future that will never arrive, anyway.

"No," said James, his voice fairly dripping with patience, "it's today. I'll leave the Floo open for you. Do hurry up--Lily's worried about you." And with a final exasperated glance in Peter's direction, James withdrew his head from the fire.

Peter sighed, cast one last longing glance at the chair where he'd been sleeping peacefully, and hurried off to get dressed. A half hour later, attired in a formal navy blue robe with gold trim, he Flooed to James and Lily's Mortlake cottage.

The others were already waiting in the living room. James, in scarlet, was attempting to soothe an armful of squirming, squalling baby. Lily, dressed in a maize-gold robe that complemented her hair, had evidently just come in from the kitchen; she was wearing a large gingham apron over the robe, and she had a streak of gravy on one cheek. Remus, in a charcoal-grey suit that was probably second-hand, was stirring a cup of tea. Sirius, in skin-tight jeans and a black leather jacket, was downing a glass of Firewhiskey.

"There you are," said Lily, bustling forward with an anxious expression and kissing him on the cheek. "When you didn't show up, I was scared. I thought something might have happened to you. So many people are…disappearing…these days--"

Peter removed his wand from his robe pocket, murmured a quick "Scourgify!" to cleanse his robes of soot, and glanced apologetically at Lily. "I'm sorry you were worried. No, nothing's happened to me--not lately, anyway." He smiled nervously. A joke, see? I can joke. I'm fine.

"No talking about the war," said James firmly as he burped his son. "Today, we're together. The war doesn't exist."

Lily sighed, and squared her shoulders. "Of course," she said, and Peter thought there might have been a flash of pity in her expression. "Well, sit down and relax, Peter. Dinner will be ready in a few minutes." And with that, she scurried back to the kitchen.

As Remus drew him aside, Peter heard Sirius say, "Pity she doesn't have a house-elf to help her around the place, Prongs."

The sudden roar of a plane overhead caused the windows to rattle and the cottage to tremble, drowning out James's answer. Sirius's reply, however, was perfectly clear. "Merlin, no, I wouldn't want Kreacher in this house..."

Their voices faded as they wandered into the dining room.

Remus shook his head. "He shouldn't do that."

"I think I annoyed James by forgetting his invitation." He sighed. "I didn't mean to forget. Honestly."

"I know." Remus smiled, a tired-hand-me-down smile that had clearly seen better days. "I wasn't talking about that, though. I was talking about Sirius. Sirius shouldn't have just ignored you."

"Oh," said Peter blankly. It hadn't occurred to him that this was a bad thing. In his experience, Sirius being mischievous and amicable was far more disturbing to Peter's peace of mind. Sirius in a good mood was a Sirius who was rebelling against everything--and who wanted his best friends to come along for the ride, no matter how hazardous or deranged the ride might be.

"It's all right," he said, looking up at Remus's long, lined face. "I didn't really notice."

Remus laughed quietly. "You're a good liar, Peter."

Peter wasn't quite certain whether to be insulted or not. He decided not to be. Getting angry took so much energy.

"He's been like that a lot lately," Remus added, removing the spoon from his mug. He set the spoon in a spotless ashtray beside the iron trivet on which a teapot, covered in a patchwork cosy, was resting. Taking a long draught of his tea, he continued, staring at nothing in particular, refusing to meet Peter's eyes.

"Has Dumbledore spoken to you lately?"

Peter couldn't remember if Dumbledore had spoken to him or not. He picked up the only empty, clean mug that remained on the table, and poured himself some tea. "No. He hasn't." Perplexed, he glanced at Remus's tense expression. "Why?"

"Because," Remus said quietly, "Dumbledore believes that there may be a traitor in our midst. One of You-Know-Who's people. And Sirius agrees."

It didn't occur to Peter that he might be the traitor that Dumbledore was talking about. "One of You-Know-Who's people" meant, to his mind, someone who longed to serve Voldemort, like Lucius Malfoy or Bellatrix Lestrange. Moreover, someone was certainly watching him, gleefully informing the Dark Lord whether or not his pitiful scraps of information were vaguely accurate...and telling Voldemort that Dorcas Meadowes was trying to help his latest slave break free.

Dorcas...

Dorcas had been a member of the Order, a plump Ravenclaw with a round, agreeable face. Her chief value to the Order had lain in her genius for finding unsuspected countercurses.

She had been useful. And the other Order members had been grateful, in a vague, tepid way. It was hard to be enthusiastic about a researcher, no matter how able, when others were risking their lives--and often dying--in battle.

Peter had seen more.

He liked her short dark hair that glistened a warm brown in sunlight. He liked her mischievous brown eyes that shone with pleasure when she saw him. He liked her infectious laugh and her low, husky voice. He liked her sharp mind and her quick wit, and how, when they debated current issues, she never backed down, never once kept silent when she thought she was right.

Dorcas, for her part, seemed to like much in Peter as well--the awe and wonder in his pale blue eyes whenever she glanced at him, the slight stammer that showed he'd been carried away by the intensity of his feelings once again. She liked his practicality and his logic; she adored his passion for reading. She was moved by the solemn, gentle care he gave to the tortured, the injured and the dying.

Most of all, she liked his smile--not the good-humoured, hail-fellow-well-met grin he used for public consumption, but the private smile only she seemed able to surprise out of him, the smile that briefly lit his face with astonished joy.

It was Dorcas he had turned to with the news that he had joined Voldemort--not the friends whom he feared would kill him out of righteous wrath. Dorcas had held him tightly as he had stared into nothingness, his face burning with shame, his voice barely a whisper as he struggled to describe the unspeakable.

Going to Dumbledore was unacceptable. Though Peter had said nothing, Dorcas had known that he could not bear the idea of beseeching Dumbledore to free him from slavery; it would be no more than exchanging one owner for another. She had understood that no matter how hard it was, no matter how much pain and effort it cost him, Peter needed to free himself.

Dorcas never once considered that she not help him do so.

She had found spells of unbinding--spells that sorely weakened the Dark Mark--fairly quickly. It was not long before the bond enslaving Peter to Voldemort began to weaken as well.

It was unfortunate that Voldemort could also feel the bond weakening.

Slaves who attempted to break free needed to be taught a lesson.

The Dark Lord did not punish Peter. He punished Dorcas. And he took his time.

Ages before the Dark Lord's wrath against her was slaked, Dorcas Meadowes ceased to be human. Mercifully, the thing that had been Dorcas screamed itself into insanity before Voldemort wearied of the harsh howls being torn from its de-evolved throat.

Peter had been forced to watch, and to do nothing.

Now, hearing Remus's words, he shot an appalled and sickened look at Remus, clenched his eyes shut in an effort to blot out the hideous images which were swimming to the surface of his memory, and shuddered.

"Who's the traitor?" he demanded in a harsh whisper. "Did he say who?"

Remus shook his head. "He doesn't know. But there are those he considers...possibilities." And with that, he glanced away from Peter, staring out the window once again.

This time, Peter followed his gaze and beheld a small silhouette of a boat bobbing on the black waters of the Thames beneath a leaden sky. It reminded him of a woodcut he had seen in a book as a small boy. The woodcut had been of a dark and endless river with twisted black cypresses and contorted weeping willows crowding beside the riverbanks, and a cavernous sky overhead. One lone boat sailed upon that river; one solitary person, a robed figure without a face, poled the boat toward the viewer silently, relentlessly, inexorably.

Charon. That had been the name of the picture. Charon, Conveying Souls to the Underworld.

Peter gazed as the boatman on the Thames seemed to merge with the woodcut of the boatman of the Styx.

"We're losing," he said in a weak voice.

Remus whirled on him. "Don't say that, Peter! The Order has to win this war. There's no hope otherwise."

Bewildered, Peter stared at Remus. War? Who cared about the war? Or the Order either, for that matter? It was they who were losing, the four of them. They were losing trust and hope and each other, and they could not stop it, no more than they could leash the north wind or force the tide not to turn.

And he could not say anything. Speaking of what was happening to them would make it real.

Peter did not think he could bear that much reality.

"Sorry," he said, trying to speak normally. "I was thinking about something else. Not the war."

Remus shot him an incredulous look that Peter understood perfectly. What else did anyone think of these days but the war?

He'd better answer, Peter realised. If Remus was innocent, failure to answer might be suspect. And if Remus had been forcibly turned, as he himself had been--or worse, if he had joined the Dark Lord voluntarily in return for the rights and privileges that Voldemort promised Dark Creatures--well, it was better that he have nothing adverse to report, wasn't it?

Part of him insisted that it was ludicrous. Remus was the soul of honour and probity. He would never do such a thing in a million years.

I wouldn't do anything like that, either, his mind answered sadly. And yet...I did.

And there was no adequate reply to that.

"I'm tired of losing people," he said at last. "People and patients and…it never stops, Remus. It never stops."

When Voldemort wanted to break my will, he killed my sisters. When he wanted to break my mind and spirit, he destroyed Dorcas before my eyes. I can't lose any more people I love, Remus. You, Sirius, James, Lily…you're all I have left. If we lose faith in each other--if we stop being friends--I don't know what I'll do.

Remus placed a comforting hand on Peter's shoulder. At least, Peter thought it was intended to be comforting.

On the other hand, werewolves were quick. One false move on Peter's part, and Remus could choke off the oxygen to his brain, or tear out Peter's jugular vein with his nails.

But he'd never do that!

...unless he was truly Voldemort's willing servant.

...unless he was being blackmailed into it.

...unless he's under the influence of Imperio.


And there was no way to know.

He hated himself for even thinking that about Remus. Remus had always been to him what James was to Sirius. James and Sirius were his friends, but Remus was his brother.

Oh, God, he couldn't lose Remus too. He couldn't.

Mentally, he damned Dumbledore for raising the question of a traitor in the Order, and James for making him come here today instead of letting him sleep without dreams or nightmares, sunk in the grey fog filling his brain. He didn't want to think about this. He did not want to think at all.

"Do you want me to talk to Sirius about what Dumbledore said?" he said hesitantly. "S-sometimes it helps to talk to someone who isn't directly involved."

"No," Remus replied in a dull aching voice. "He wouldn't want to hear it. He especially wouldn't want to hear that you'd heard the news from me."

There was a slight pause before Peter realised that he should question that last statement. "Why? Why wouldn't he want to hear that?"

Remus gave him a sharp glance. "You haven't been talking to Moody lately."

Peter shivered.

"Something wrong?"

"It's just--the way he talks sometimes. He tried to tell me that the Death Eaters deserve to have their souls taken from them." A thread of anger crept into Peter's voice as he spoke. "And I said that wasn't fair. And it isn't. W-we hate them for the inhuman things they do to others, and then we turn right around and take away their humanity? How does that make us any better than they are? It doesn't make sense."

"Moody would probably say that's repayment for their sins," murmured Remus. "That, or retribution."

"Retribution's just a fancy word for getting even," said Peter, already beginning to feel exhausted. "And how can you pay for what you did wrong if you aren't even you any more? When there's nothing left but a husk that doesn't know enough to stop breathing? You can't even pay for it in the afterlife because there's no you to go on to the afterlife!"

"Moody thinks that's no better than creatures of the Dark deserve." Remus's expression was carefully neutral.

Peter thought of James taunting Snape, of Sirius and the Prank, of himself kneeling before Voldemort, choking out secrets that might get his friends killed. "Everybody's a creature of the Dark, at times."

"Some of us more than others," Remus said with a tight bitter smile.

"I can't believe that Moody would suspect you," said Peter, attempting to smother the thought that suspecting Remus did make a horrible kind of sense. The Dark Lord did promise werewolves greater freedom, as well as opportunities to avenge themselves on the society that hated them. Remus was kind and patient, but even a kind and patient werewolf might grow weary of hatred, fear and contempt eventually and might ache to lash out.

"Well," said Remus, "he does. Of course, he also suspects Fabian and Gideon Prewett, Minerva McGonagall and you, so I can't take his suspicions too seriously."

"Me?" Peter stared at Remus in dull amazement. "He suspects me? Why?"

"I've no idea." Remus rolled his eyes. "I think that he's been cursed one time too many. It's eating away his brain."

"Do you suspect anyone?"

The question was an idle one; Peter thoroughly expected Remus--whether he was guilty or innocent--to say "No!" automatically. Instead, Remus glanced away from the window and stared at the flowered carpet.

"I-I don't know. I don't want to. But," and Remus scowled, "he could be. He has the right background, and there's something You-Know-Who possesses that he wants very badly." He shook himself. With an all-too-casual air, he added, "Are you still talking to Regulus?"

Peter blinked, wondering at the abrupt change of subject. "Of course. He's a friend."

"Sirius thinks he's worthless."

"Sirius is wrong."

"You know…Regulus is probably a Death Eater."

"He IS a Death Eater." Peter sighed. "Look, he didn't know what he was joining. He thought it was just a political party, or a group of activists. Just a bit of mummery and ritual--nothing to take seriously. He didn't know what it was going to involve."

"He had to have heard the rumours, Peter."

"Of course he did," Peter retorted. "But most people don't join a political organisation and think, 'Well, now that I've joined, I shall terrorise the public and slaughter people.' He probably thought that the rumours were just gossip started by the opposite side."

"Even so…"

"He wants to quit."

Remus gazed at him with a pitying expression. "Do you honestly believe that quitting is an option?"

"I don't know," said Peter reluctantly. "I hope so."

"I doubt if he can simply hand in his letter of resignation to You-Know-Who…much as he wants to."

Peter took a deep breath. "He made a stupid mistake. That's all. He's sorry. He knows he was wrong. He shouldn't have to pay for the rest of his life for being stupid."

"In your opinion," Remus replied softly. "And mine. Moody and Sirius would probably disagree. They'd say that there wasn't any humanity left in a wizard, once he turned to the Dark."

"Do you think that Dumbledore believes that? Or," and Peter bit his lower lip, "do you think that he'd help?"

Remus considered for a few moments, then nodded. "Yes, I think he believes that. Otherwise, he wouldn't be warning us against the traitor, would he? He'd be trying to get the traitor onto our side."

Peter felt as if he were choking. "But...this is Regulus I'm talking about. Dumbledore knows him. He's Sirius's brother."

"Yes. But this is war. They can't afford to take that kind of a chance."

Peter said nothing. He couldn't. He felt as if someone had just struck him in the stomach with a sledgehammer.

As he battled for words, for air, for anything to overcome the feeling of panic crushing his rib cage as if he were drowning, Lily stepped into the room.

"Dinner's ready," she said.

***

Peter did not bother to speak during dinner; he concentrated on the food. It tasted like cardboard, but that wasn't Lily's fault--so did most food he ate these days. At least it was warm and filling.

Determinedly, he did not think about Remus being the traitor watching him...or about the people in the Order being quite righteously certain that no one on the side of the Dark Lord could possibly crave anything better.

He was far from the only distracted one at the table. Remus was not talking much, and when he did, it was nothing more than light-hearted small talk--the kind of banter you'd engage in with strangers you wanted to impress. Sirius was pointedly not looking at Remus, and he was being odiously cheerful--rather, Peter thought, like a game show host.

James, clearly not understanding what was wrong but nevertheless looking and sounding apprehensive, chatted mostly about Quidditch and Harry--two supremely dull topics, as far as Peter was concerned. Even after seven years at Hogwarts, he still found Quidditch confusing, and as for Harry…well, the child might be interesting someday but right now, he was barely two months old and hadn't even discovered that he had feet and could insert them into his mouth.

Peter would have left after pudding (which was home-made pound cake, a dessert he detested) if he hadn't been cornered by a harried Lily.

"Peter," she said, looking frazzled, "I need to talk to Sirius--preferably over dishes. Could you please take Harry for a walk?" And with that, she placed the baby in Peter's unresisting arms.

"Sirius'll want to cast Scourgify on the dishes," Peter reminded her. "You'll be talking to him for all of two seconds."

"He's not casting Cleansing Charms on my dishes," Lily retorted. "I've seen what happens when Sirius casts Scourgify on china. The plates look as if they've been scoured with a cheese grater. No. We'll do this the Muggle way. Slowly. And up to our elbows in hot water."

You've just described my entire friendship with these three, Peter thought.

He didn't consider refusing, however. You just didn't do that when Lily asked for help.

So, fifteen minutes later, Peter--wearing one of James's old cloaks, and trying not to trip over the hem--was pushing a pram containing a very bundled-up baby away from the blue house at Number 1, Thames Bank.

"Your parents are daft, you know," he murmured to Harry in what he hoped was a soothing tone. "Yours and the Longbottoms. Now, if I had a child, I'd send the baby and his mother off to Antarctica rather than have them stay here in the middle of a war."

Harry made a sound similar to "Ba-ba-ba-wstfgl."

"No, really. I wish I'd sent Dorcas someplace safe. But she was so determined to help..." Peter's face twisted involuntarily. "If I'd known what he was going to do to her, I'd never have told her what I'd done. Never."

Harry murfled.

"You'd have liked her, you know. Well, maybe you would have." Peter sighed. "Most people she worked with don't even remember her."

Dorcas's grotesque remains had been found by Mad-Eye Moody, along with certain scraps of information which told him that Voldemort was the killer. He and Dumbledore, Peter was sure, had decided not to tell the rest of the Order what had happened to Dorcas; it would be bad for morale.

Most of the Order members had simply assumed that Dorcas had been slain with the Killing Curse. They had mourned her at the funeral with formal indifference, and speculated idly about her death over the funeral baked meats, and went on.

Peter had said nothing. He dared not. His first refusal of Voldemort had cost his sisters' lives; his attempt to break free had cost him his love.

Peter's thoughts were interrupted as Harry opened his mouth and let loose an ear-splitting wail.

Peter leaned in the pram, picked the baby up, placed him against his shoulder, and began rubbing the child's back in small, circular motions. "Yes," he murmured. "Seems like I've been wanting to scream like that for years."

Harry bubbled against Peter's shoulder.

"He's going to win." Peter stared out over the Thames. "Not because he's right, or because he deserves to. There just aren't enough people fighting him. And there are loads of people who are supporting him--not because they want to, but because they're afraid not to.

"It'll be ghastly when he takes over."

Peter turned to look at the baby in his arms. "Promise me something, Harry. Promise me you won't be a hero. Promise me that as soon as you see him coming after you, you'll run to the Australian Outback. Or the Himalayas. Or Point Barrow, Alaska. Anywhere but here. Don't fight him. I couldn't bear it if you ended up like Dorcas.

"And don't be like me."

There was no answer but the child's breathing. Harry had fallen asleep.

Gently, Peter placed Harry back in his pram and slowly walked back to the blue cottage.

But no sooner had he hung James's cloak back on the coat rack, returned the pram to the nursery, and handed the sleeping baby over to his mother when Sirius cornered him--with a determined look in his grey eyes.

"Wormtail. I've got to talk to you. It's vital."

Don't call me Wormtail, Peter thought, not bothering to say it aloud. He'd told Sirius how much he hated that nickname at least five thousand times, but his dislike never made any impression.

"Can't it wait?" he asked, hating the whine in his voice. "Please, Sirius? I-I'm tired."

Which was true. Exhaustion had seeped into his bones. All he wanted was to go home, sleep for a year, and forget about today's debacle.

Sirius sneered. "You always were lazy."

There wasn't any point in commenting on Sirius's rudeness; Peter knew he would only sound petulant.

"Fine," he said wearily. "What do you want?"

Sirius gazed at him sternly. "Did Remus talk to you earlier?"

"Yes."

"About?"

Peter almost groaned. "The war. What else do any of us talk about these days?"

"Nothing else?" The sentence snapped out like a whip.

Peter considered. Dumbledore, Moody, Regulus, treachery...no, it all added up to the war in his book. He shook his head.

"He didn't mention where he's been going on his missions?"

"No." Why would he? Peter wondered. They're supposed to be secret.

"You didn't ask?" Plaintively.

"I have enough trouble keeping track of my own missions. Besides...I assume there are things that it's better for me not to know."

"Always careful, aren't you?" The sneer was back.

"I'm a Healer," Peter said quietly. "I try to put people's bodies back together after the Death Eaters take them apart. Sometimes I even succeed. I think you'd want me to be careful."

Sirius ran his hand through his hair. For a moment it looked even messier than James's. "I do. I do, honestly. It's just--what do you do when something's horribly wrong and you know it's horribly wrong and you think that you know what's making it all go wrong, but you...just...can't...fix...it?"

Peter thought of St Mungo's, and the cursed and wounded people he treated daily. "You do what you can," he said quietly. "If you can't heal it outright, you minimise the damage--or at least make sure that the curse or infection doesn't spread, even if it doesn't get better. And it's not enough. But sometimes that's all you can do."

Sirius had turned pale as milk. "Minimising the damage---that would be difficult. I don't know if I could do something like that."

Wondering why Sirius was discussing medicine, of all things, Peter lifted one shoulder and then let it drop. "You wouldn't have to, under normal circumstances."

"Nothing's normal nowadays."

Peter rubbed his temples; he could feel a dizzying migraine coming on. "Sometimes, in abnormal circumstances, you have to do things that you would never even think of doing otherwise. Like an emergency tracheotomy with a penknife to save someone from choking. Or...or those Muggles who crashed in the Andes and who ended up eating each other."

And if that didn't spell out that Sirius should do whatever it took to save Regulus--or Peter--he didn't know what would.

"That..." Sirius stared at Peter, wet his lips and swallowed several times. "That's bloody harsh, Peter."

"You do what you have to do to save people's lives," Peter repeated. "It isn't always easy, and it's rarely pleasant."

Sirius nodded--as little as possible--and then looked away.

An uncomfortable silence stretched between them for a thousand minutes.

"I need to go, Sirius," Peter said at last, speaking in a gentle tone that lied and said he wasn't fleeing the subject, or Sirius's company, or memories that twisted in his mind like a knife. "I'm very tired. And tomorrow I start another seventy-two hour shift."

All of which was true. But Sirius's pain and Remus's possible treachery--or was it the other way around?--made being here unbearable. He could not endure another minute in this house. And if that made him a coward, well, so be it.

He should say something to Sirius. He knew that. But for the life of him, he didn't know what.

Before he could speak, Sirius nodded and slumped off in another direction. Peter didn't go after him. What would be the point?

He bade a hasty (but not too hasty) farewell to his host and hostess, and a friendly (but not too friendly) goodbye to Remus. Judging by their smiles and cheerful voices, they saw nothing unusual in his demeanour, nothing strange in his departure. Despite the fears and insecurities spawned by the war, everything was as it had always been between them, as firm and unshakeable as bedrock.

So, as he Flooed home, there was really no reason why he should picture the Potters, Sirius, Remus and himself as a line of paper dolls, ripped apart and blown in opposite directions by an unrelenting storm.

***

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