The Sugar Quill
Author: Arabella (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Down from the Tree: Consequences  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.

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

A sequel to Down From the Tree: Actions, by Firelocks.

Please read the above story first.

Disclaimer: It’s all JKR’s: especially the bit with Harry, Hermione and Buckbeak, which is lifted almost directly from PoA, US paperback edition pp 414-415.

~*~

Something pounded repeatedly against Sirius Black’s temple – something cold and hard and slightly damp. It cut through the foggy unconsciousness in which he lay, and most of all, it hurt.

"Stop," he tried to mutter, but it didn’t come out sounding like a word at all. His tongue hit up against a wad of rough fabric, which cut, cordlike, into the corners of his mouth and blocked his voice. He was gagged. Sirius jolted awake, horrible fear flooding back to him, and he tried desperately to move – to open his eyes. Dementors. The Dementors were everywhere, and Harry was right nearby, and it was the end…

He struggled in vain; his arms were bound. His legs were bound. Sure of his fate, Sirius wrenched his eyes open and stared up in terror.

"Good morning, Black."

Severus Snape stood above him, leering brightly, his face so filled with satisfaction that it was a caricature of itself.

"I trust you’ve had a pleasant little nap."

The pounding continued – something like stone, bashing into Sirius’s temple again, and then once more, and then twice in quick succession. He realized by his proximity to Snape’s revolting head that he must not be lying on the ground at all – instead, his body was being suspended in midair and his head was being smashed against the wall at this Slytherin bastard’s will.

Sirius began to swear, but every filthy word he knew became entangled in the fabric of his gag and stuck there.

"Temper, temper," Snape said blithely, smacking him against the wall once more. "You wouldn’t want to do something rash and get landed in Azkaban… Ah, but wait…" Snape smiled, his eyes gleaming. "Too late."

Several even filthier words made their way into the wad of magical cord that filled Sirius’s mouth, and Snape gave a maniacal laugh. Blood still trickled from beneath his greasy hair, where Harry and his friends had hit him.

Harry. I’ve spoken to Harry. He knows the truth. He’s going to live with me.

Even the continual pounding of his head on the flagstones couldn’t banish that thought from his mind, and Sirius laughed into his gag, suddenly and bizarrely happy. It had been so long since a thought like that had flashed through his consciousness that it made him oddly sick to his stomach.

"Something funny, Black?" Snape hissed, and drew Sirius’s prone body away from the wall with a flick of his wrist.

Free my mouth and I’ll tell you what’s funny, Sirius thought grimly, struggling once more against his bonds. He had no time for games, for schoolboy grudges – not now. He had seen Harry, yes, but what had happened to him? Those Dementors had been a hundred strong. And what had become of Harry’s friends? Especially that boy, the one with the red hair, who had been willing to die… Sirius shivered. The panic in that boy’s voice had been frighteningly familiar.

"I’ve caught you at last..." Snape lowered his face so it was right above Sirius’s, and Sirius worked to turn over in the air and get away from Snape, who was just as foul as he remembered. He couldn’t do it, and Snape inched closer, grinning horribly. "I was right about you…" the whisper cut into Sirius’s ears, into his mind. "And in a moment, you will receive the kiss that you deserve…"

"NO –" the word was trapped in his mouth and he lost track of thoughts of Harry. The only thought in his mind was to escape – escape – "Please you have to listen to me," he began, chewing the words against his gag, praying that just this once, Snape would be reasonable. "Let me explain it and even you will understand." He choked on his own spit, and knew his words hadn’t been heard.

"Enunciate," Snape mocked, wagging his wand lightly above Sirius’s nose. "Or has Azkaban ruined your powers of speech as well as your figure?"

Sirius growled helplessly and thrashed from side to side. If only Remus… but he was probably deep in the forest, by now. If only Harry… but Sirius realized his mistake. Harry looked like James, but he was not James. And where James would have found a way to fix this, Harry was a thirteen-year-old boy, possibly wounded, possibly even dead.

"WHERE’S HARRY?" he shouted suddenly through his gag. "COME ON, YOU BASTARD, WHERE’S MY GODSON?"

Snape understood him – Sirius knew it by the mad glint in his eye and the way his smile thinned slightly. "Dare you even ask?" he answered coldly. "I knew you would be back to finish the job. There was never a question in my mind."

Sirius strained with all his power. If he could free one limb… just one…

"But do have a last word." Snape flicked his wand sharply over Sirius’s face, making him flinch. An instant later, he felt the cords of his gag dissipate into air. His mouth was free. He worked his jaw, trying to regain feeling. "I am waiting," Snape said, flicking his wand again so that Sirius swung upward and hung vertically before him in the air. "I suggest you begin with an apology."

Sirius snarled openly at him, forgetting that he was not Padfoot.

"Charming," Snape muttered, and stepped away, wiping spittle from his cheek.

"Apologize to you?" Sirius hissed. "Keep dreaming, Snape. I’ve never bent to a Death Eater and I don’t intend to start now."

The color drained from Snape’s already pale face, rendering it white as bone. "Never, is it?" he whispered, his mouth barely shaping the words. "Never, Black? Is this excepting when you joined the Dark Lord’s service and betrayed the Potters?"

"I NEVER BETRAYED LILY AND JAMES POTTER!" Sirius cried, wishing there were some way to strike the lines of certainty – of judgment – from Snape’s silken expression. They were harder to take, somehow, than the idea of being kissed. "Please listen, I’m telling you nothing but the truth – Peter Pettigrew was that boy’s pet. He’s been here all this time – he betrayed James – you must hear me –"

"How I’ve missed the lies, Black," Snape interrupted harshly, dropping his act and glaring at him with the full power of an old, dark hatred. "The lies and the murder plots. I knew you were a killer when you were sixteen. I saw it."

"That was a MISTAKE!" Sirius shouted, finding himself near tears. He didn’t even know if he could fight them. He hadn’t had such a powerful emotion as this in too long a time; his remaining self-control in such matters was thin and unpracticed.

"Do you want me to believe that?" Snape laughed unforgivingly. "You sent me down to be eaten by a werewolf by mistake? Yes… I see it now… it was all a simple misunderstanding…" He seized Sirius’s throat suddenly and pinned him to the wall. "I knew," he repeated in a whisper, "what you would become. And I was right."

~*~

Gryffindor tower was already ablaze with firelight and Filibuster Fireworks by the time Sirius angrily gave the password and stormed in with his boxes of stolen sweets. He was relieved of them immediately by his cheering housemates, and was too furious to care that he wasn’t even going to benefit from his own damn kitchen raid; éclairs and tarts circulated at the speed of light and the boxes were left empty at his feet.

"Three cheers for Gryffindor!" some fourth year cried from the stairs, shaking up two butterbeers and then cracking them open, sure of his aim. The warm, foaming contents showered over the knot of beaming, hollering House team players; James threw back his dark head with a victorious grin, and tried to catch some in his mouth.

"And how about three cheers for our Seeker? I bring you Mr. — James — POTTER!" Peter stood up in the window seat, shooting off a new set of fireworks as he yelled, sending scarlet and gold stars to bounce madly from stones to tapestries to Quidditch robes, illuminating the hollering faces and James’s nearly-modest smile.

But Sirius was shaken. Too shaken, still, from his encounter with Snape, to open his mouth and cheer. He had a bad feeling that, last he’d opened his mouth, a terrible thing had escaped. He shoved that thought as deep as it would go, and instead he chose to focus hard on Peter, wondering just how he had got so bloody worked up about the Quidditch Cup when he hadn’t shown up for the match in the first place.

Peter tossed aside the empty fireworks shells, and caught his eye. Sirius tried to work up his usual grin, but apparently it wasn’t convincing; Peter hopped down from the windowsill and marched toward him.

"What’s up with you?" he said.

"Why?" Sirius asked, straining to sound normal. It was Gryffindor’s night – James’s night – and he wasn’t going to let Snape’s ugly sack of bones ruin it for him.

Peter crossed his arms. "Because you’re not eating anything, you haven’t yelled once, and you look like someone pissed in your butterbeer."

Sirius snorted. "Just about," he muttered. "Stinking Slytherin —" but he caught himself, ducking away from another shower of explosive foam. "Bugger it, though, let’s just celebrate."

But Peter’s chin had already gone stubborn and he stood his ground, planting his feet firmly and tightening his crossed arms, the way he always did when he’d decided to stand someone down. "What happened with Snape?" he demanded.

"Snape?" James’s smile was as electric as anything they’d learned about in Muggle Studies. It was as if he’d just caught the Snitch two seconds ago; the celebration must have gone right to his head. He flung an arm around Sirius’s shoulders and very nearly crowed. "We beat them –" he pounded his chest with his free hand, then leaned in and lowered his voice conspiratorially, "—can’t wait to see Moony," he whispered, before letting himself be towed off by a couple of extremely excited Chasers for an ‘instant replay’.

Peter stared after him, then back at Sirius, and his mouth made an ‘O’ of understanding. "We’ve got Remus tonight," he said quietly. "I’d forgot about that."

Sirius looked over his shoulder and out of the Gryffindor tower window, toward the dark, writhing mass of branches that was the Whomping Willow.

Wait, they’re not really writhing, Snape’s not really going... no. No, it’s fine. Ruddy over imaginative — Snape would never. He’d never. He hasn’t got the stones for it.

"Well don’t get your knickers in a twist," Peter continued. "If that’s what you’re worried over, then we can’t leave for two hours anyway — Moony told me if we drew attention to ourselves by leaving the party early, he’d bite us all, and you hardest."

Sirius grinned weakly. Remus was always so sure that Gryffindor would win. "Two hours. Right," he finally said, and this time, Peter seemed satisfied.

"We’ll be pushing that knot in no time," he said with a grin, and scampered off toward an abandoned pastry. Sirius’s eyes strayed back to the Willow and stayed there until someone jostled his elbow.

"What about Snape?" James was back, dragging him toward the dark corner near the boys’ staircase. "Sorry I didn’t ask before, had to show off for Lily for just a second there — but what’d that idiot do now?"

"Who, Lily?" Sirius said, trying for a sarcastic distraction.

"Ha." James feinted a punch at Sirius’s nose. "Don’t make me beat it out of you. What happened?"

"Later. No, I mean it, it’ll just ruin your night."

"Look, if it’s that bad, better just have it out now." James’s smile was perfectly amiable and his posture was easy, but unlike Peter, he wasn’t going anywhere without a real answer.

Sirius sighed. "Fine. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Brace yourself." And he grimly, but faithfully, repeated his conversation with Snape, watching as James lost color and his eyes took on a faint, panicked gleam.

"He – do you think he knows?" he finally muttered, sticking a hand in his hair and leaving it there.

Sirius ignored the question and went on. "And then I said I’d kill him."

"Good."

"And then he said, don’t do it here and muss up the floors, why don’t we go to the Whomping Willow, so Lupin can fight his own battles."

"No. Oh – that –" James stuck the other hand in his hair and began to pull mercilessly at it. "He knows. He really knows, Sirius."

"I know. What do we…?"

"I don’t know!" James’s panic was full blown. "He’s going to Dumbledore? He knows about our – and that we – DAMN IT. Serve him right if we did send him down there to fight it out with Moony! Great – ugly – nosing – son of a – "

Sirius drew breath. "Yeah, well, I’m glad you think so, because that’s what I did."

James looked up sharp. "Huh?"

"Told him if he was so interested in all of it, he ought to go press the knot on the Willow and see."

James’s hands came out of his hair and trembled before him; for a wild second, Sirius believed that James was actually going to strangle him.

"You’re kidding though," James laughed dryly. "You didn’t tell him how to –"

"I did. And like you said, it serves the bastard right."

James wasn’t listening anymore; he pushed roughly past Sirius and pulled his wand.

"It’s not like he went down there," Sirius protested in a low voice, following him to the portrait hole. "He knows about Remus, it’d be suicide."

James whirled in fury, his eyes darting around the party before he spoke. "What if he just wants proof? What if he brought other people, or what if –"

"Oh, come off it, when has that overgrown bat ever believed anything I’ve said —"

But James grabbed his shirtfront, effectively silencing him. "You better hope you’re right, because if you’re not, then Snape’s probably dead by now, and if he’s dead, then Remus killed him."

Nausea rolled through Sirius, and he was left to mouth soundlessly at the back of the portrait hole as James dashed through it without a backward glance.

"Where’s he going?" Peter asked, coming to his elbow. "More pastries?" he asked hopefully.

"No, not more pastries," Sirius snarled, knocking Peter away and taking long strides toward the dormitory stairs. Snape wouldn’t go down there. He wouldn’t. He took his coward’s arse right down to the dungeons and he’s sitting there moping over some filthy Dark Arts potion right now. He’s not in that tunnel.

He’s not in that tunnel.

Oh god, he better not be in that tunnel, that lying, cheating, greasy, slithering —

"Hey." Lily blocked his passage to the stairs and grinned. "Where’s James, do you know? I can’t find him, and I’m not checking the sixth floor boys’ loo for stragglers again. That’s his job."

Sirius couldn’t think of a lie quick enough, and he realized he must look pretty overwrought when Lily’s face fell worriedly.

"Sirius? What’s wrong? Where is he?"

"Nowhere."

She put a hand on her hip. "Where, precisely, might that be located?"

You can tell Snape, but you can’t tell her? And you can’t tell her. And you shouldn’t have told anyone.

"I don’t know. Look, I’ll check our room and see if he’s up there," he said, trying to shake off his mounting anxiety. James would be back at any second, pissed off but satisfied. Because Snape wasn’t down in that tunnel.

Lily narrowed her eyes. "Well, wherever he is, tell him I’m not keen on doing his prefect duties, no matter how many Snitches he caught."

"Fine."

She stepped out of the way, and Sirius made for his room, where he crashed face down onto his bed and felt his own hot breath in the pillows. "No," he muttered. "What the hell was I thinking? What? Why? Shit." He went on in this vein for quite some time, unable to believe his idiocy. Whether or not Snape had followed his instructions – and he hadn’t, Sirius reminded himself quickly – he now knew where Remus transformed. Of course, he’d known before, hadn’t he? But now he knew beyond the shadow of a doubt, and it was Sirius who had confirmed the information – Sirius who had revealed the point of entry. They would never again be free to use that passage. And if they couldn’t use that passage, then they couldn’t get to Moony every month – Moony, who needed them far more than Sirius had needed to relieve his anger just for the satisfaction of putting Snape in danger.

Not that he was in danger.

"Sirius?"

It was Peter. Sirius stayed still.

"Lily sent me up. She says you’re hiding James." He received no answer. "Is this to do with Remus?" He shuffled his feet in the silence. "Is it… whatever happened with Snape?"

Sirius rolled over and looked pleadingly at Peter.

"I have to ask," Peter said, shoving his hands in his pockets and looking determined to know. "Just say it, it can’t be that bad."

Slowly, and from very far away, Sirius heard himself relate the story to Peter, whose eyes grew rounder with every word.

"Well, come on, we have to go down there!" Peter was halfway through the door already.

"No," Sirius barked. "James’ll be back in a second, and I’m sure Snape – "

"I think Snape would go down there!" Peter pled. "James isn’t back, and – wait a minute! Haven’t you even checked the map to see?"

Sirius sat bolt upright. The map. It was right in his pocket – had been, all night. He fumbled for it, unrolling it with shaking fingers. It was still active from earlier use, and he searched the outside edge, where the tiny Willow was sketched.

"No. No. No."

But there it was. Two dots, side by side, their labels unmistakable. James Potter. Severus Snape.

"Mischief managed," Sirius gasped. He was on his feet, ditching his robes and the map on the bed, pushing past Peter, and running for the exit. No matter how bad it was, there was nothing for it but to go – now – before anything bad happened to James. To Moony. He was downstairs in seconds, cursing himself for not having checked the map sooner, ignoring desperate looks from Lily, whose face registered real alarm at his wild reappearance; she struggled to get out of a knot of girls on the far side of the common room.

"Stay here," Sirius ordered Peter, who was at his elbow again, but Peter threw his shoulders back.

"Who’ll touch the knot if I stay?" he said.

Sirius growled under his breath and knocked open the portrait hole, and their two pairs of feet pounded down seven flights of stairs. Peter barreled toward the entrance hall, but Sirius seized him by the back of his robes.

"We’ll be caught, you idiot!" he hissed, and dragged Peter toward another door, one only used by the four Marauders when they were on missions of utmost secrecy. It let them out on the far side of the Great Hall, where Filch would never think to turn his nosy lantern, and they charged together onto the dark Hogwarts lawns.

"Keep up, damn it!"

"I’m trying," Peter panted. "Was Remus – in the tunnel with – "

"No! Don’t talk, just run!"

"Sirius – what made you – tell Snape – all about –"

"I told you the whole story, keep up!"

"No, I mean – How could you – tell him – no matter – what?"

Sirius turned on his heel, stopping a very alarmed looking Peter in his tracks. "Shut up," he said flatly. "You just shut up." And then he turned and ran flat out, all the rest of the way to the Willow, not caring if Peter was behind him. He felt he was more than a match for the whomping branches, so desperate was he to get to the knot. As the tree began to wake, thrashing peevishly at first and then quite dangerously, Sirius concentrated on one thing only.

His muscles contracted. He felt the compacting of his bones, the speeding up of his heart; he felt hair prickle at all his pores and he doubled over, putting his hands flat on the ground while they were still hands. In seconds, his fingers were replaced with clawed stumps on a pad of warm skin. His tongue lolled from his mouth as he sweated with fear. His muddled human thoughts were no longer; Padfoot’s instincts were sharper, less complicated. There was no map, no guilt, no wand, no wondering. There were only Prongs and Moony, and the barrier between himself and them. He dove for the knot.

There was an indignant squeal, and Sirius saw a fat streak of grey bolt toward the base of the trunk. He ducked to avoid a massive, angry branch, which caught the top of his back with a stinging slap, making him yowl.

And then it went still. Wormtail was finished. They had access. Padfoot leapt forward, going face first down into the tunnel. He landed badly, slipping on small rocks and dust, and skidding to the bottom of the worn earth stairway, where he came to a panting halt.

No one was there.

~*~

"Remember?" Snape breathed, flexing his long, cold fingers on Sirius’s immobile neck. "Or have you conveniently forgotten, in light of your allegiance to the Dark Lord?"

"I never called him Lord, Snape," Sirius spat. "But I see you haven’t stopped."

Snape drew an uneven breath and his black eyes spiraled inward with rage. He seemed incapable of sound.

"That’s right," Sirius whispered recklessly, "I know your secrets… I know all of what you did… People talk, in Azkaban…Dumbledore is mad to trust you…"

Snape made a choking noise and tightened his grip, stopping Sirius’s voice in his throat. "I will alert the Minister of Magic of your presence here," he managed. "And then I will watch them suck whatever remains of your soul." He laughed, a high-pitched, irrational sound. "Trust me."

Sirius trembled violently, his mind a blur. The Dementors would come. "Please," he said brokenly. "Don’t do this. Listen to me. You don’t understand."

Snape ignored him and made a soft, kissing sound. "Right out through your mouth…" he taunted, his lips curling into a cruel smile.

"Severus."

Sirius nearly wept with relief at the sound of Albus Dumbledore’s voice.

Snape froze. The hand on Sirius’s throat went still and the leering expression flattened into a mask.

"I understand that you are responsible for delivering Harry and his friends to the hospital wing," Dumbledore said simply.

Snape lowered his hand from Sirius’s neck and wiped it slowly on his robe. "Yes, Headmaster."

"Thank you." Dumbledore looked over Snape’s shoulder and caught Sirius’s eyes with his light blue ones, but only fleetingly, before returning his attention to Snape. "And I see that you have taken it upon yourself to see that Mr. Black is… adequately detained."

"Yes, Headmaster. I was only just bringing him to your office."

"Ah. Well, Professor Flitwick’s office is to your right, and will serve the same purpose very well."

Snape raised his wand, his face still unreadable, and directed Sirius’s bound body into the cheerful little office, which was full of warm brown leather and polished oak and stacks of graded papers. But Sirius was not fooled by its warmth and light – this place was to serve as a cell, until the Minister arrived with his Dementors. On instinct, he looked about him for avenues of escape. The door would never work, but the window – it was high, and small. He could manage it, perhaps, but how to get down…? From what he could see of the trees in the Forbidden Forest, he knew the office must be on the sixth or seventh floor of the castle.

"Thank you, Severus." Dumbledore followed them in and went calmly to a large, comfortable chair near the window. He swept his robes aside, and sat. "Please unbind Mr. Black."

"But Headmaster – Sirius Black – you know what this man is capable of – "

"Yes I do," Dumbledore said sadly, and Sirius felt his heart wither in his chest. It was hopeless. Dumbledore still believed that he had been the Secret-Keeper.

Snape, however, seemed mildly appeased by his response, and with a flick of his wand he removed Sirius’s restraints. Sirius fell instantly from his suspended position and crumpled to a heap on the office floor, banging his knees and head on various pieces of furniture.

"That will do." Dumbledore’s voice was suddenly hard. "You are dismissed."

Sirius’s head snapped up; he wasn’t sure whom Dumbledore meant, and he felt a strange – perhaps juvenile – thrill of victory, to find that the headmaster was looking directly at Snape, whose mouth had fallen slightly open.

"But –"

"Thank you, Severus, that will be all." His tone left no room for argument.

Snape’s fingers clenched and he moved to the door. "I will find the Minister," he hissed, and shut the door behind him much harder than was necessary.

The room went still. Sirius did not take his eyes from Dumbledore’s face. And, eventually, the headmaster shifted his gaze away from the door and met Sirius’s eyes. Dumbledore examined him for what felt like an endless moment and Sirius held his breath, waiting. Almost hoping.

"Sirius Black." The words were a sigh. "How you’ve changed."

~*~

Padfoot inhaled deeply, trying to smell what had happened here. Humans. There was a human scent down here, dark and unfamiliar — and then familiar. Two scents. Disjointed words came into his canine brain. Snape. James. He followed the human trail, snuffling urgently along the rocks in the dark until he came to a smell that made him freeze.

Blood. Gingerly he sniffed at it, trying to identify it, but this blood was unfamiliar. Not Prongs, not Moony... Padfoot recoiled and whined at the only obvious answer. This was Snape’s blood. Snape was injured. Snape had been bitten, hurt, killed... Padfoot whined harder and backed away from the evidence, pressing his haunches to the far wall, flattening his ears. Wormtail darted up to the blood-slicked rock and let out a high-pitched, sickening sound. The rat understood. He turned to Padfoot and seemed to be waiting for him to decide what they would do.

The growl that broke their silence made every hair on Padfoot’s body stand straight on end, and he did not dare turn toward it.

The wolf. And not friend, now, not brother — he had approached in stealthy silence, catching Padfoot at a deliberate disadvantage. This was predatory. He snarled again, a low, rumbling, echoing noise that told Padfoot he was about to be attacked by one of his own pack.

Slowly, and keeping his eyes down to show he had no wish to dominate, Padfoot circled around. He lifted his gaze to the wolf now, but dropped his body low in obvious submission to Moony.

God, that’s Moony. Remus is in there.

The thought had been clearly Sirius’s. He’d never seen the wolf like this, never, not even on the first night that they’d all shown up to the Shrieking Shack and forced him to get used to their scents. This was a werewolf unhinged, muzzle pulled back over dripping teeth, eyes sour yellow with an insane sort of hunger. Padfoot could smell the hunger; it mingled in the air with the still-pungent scent of human presence. Human blood. Had the wolf already sated itself? Or had Prongs and Snape somehow made it safely out, and was this a werewolf robbed of flesh, deprived of its first true meal since Remus had been bitten?

The wolf’s crazed yellow eyes darted to Wormtail, suddenly, and he growled again, this time with unmistakable purpose.

It happened almost too quickly for Padfoot to react. The wolf launched swiftly at Wormtail, who made a terrified lunge for the exit – but the wolf trapped him by his tail and dove, teeth bared, at what was clearly nothing to him but meat. Flesh. Food.

Padfoot launched himself between them, knocking Wormtail halfway down the corridor and putting his right shoulder where the rat had just been. Teeth sank through his coat — his flesh — drawing blood and raking a long gash down his side. Padfoot howled in pain, but dug his full weight beneath the wolf’s jaw and shoved toward him with such force that Moony was thrown against the wall. Gravel rained down on them both. Padfoot barely caught sight of Wormtail, streaking between his feet toward the exit. He barked after him twice, then three times, then let out one long howl: their signal for Danger, Get Prongs Fast. But Wormtail scrambled up the steps and out of the tunnel without giving his answer, and Padfoot felt suddenly, horribly alone.

There was a nasty, growling bark at his back and before he could turn, long, razor like teeth sank into his hide. Padfoot yelped and spun, feeling a good chunk of skin tear away from his hindquarters, and he lowered his head against Moony’s continuing attack, butting his head against the wolf’s as many times as he could, avoiding the savage jaws that tried to close on his ears, his throat, until he finally connected and heard the horrible crack! of skull against skull. Moony whimpered and stumbled, confused, giving Padfoot the opportunity to dash for the exit. Please, let Wormtail have frozen the tree again, please, don’t let me be trapped in here…

He clambered upward, fighting to exit, yet wondering what would happen if somehow, Moony were also able to escape. He’d hunt for food. Please don’t let there be anyone on the grounds… not even Filch…

He pushed his nose through the opening in the roots and howled in pain when a thick, wicked branch abruptly smashed his snout. Padfoot fell down the dirt steps and scrambled to his feet in the tunnel, frightened, bracing himself for another attack from the werewolf, whom he knew had truly gone mad. He turned quickly, readying himself to fight for his life, though he was beginning to doubt that he would win.

But the wolf wasn’t coming for him. He wasn’t even on his feet any longer, and this was no trick – Moony lay like a sack of brown and silver fur in the middle of the passage, motionless.

Padfoot hesitated to run toward him; instinct told the dog that the wolf was still deadly, however quietly he lay. But Sirius won out, and Sirius had forgot that the wounded animal before him was anything but Remus. He ran to his friend, terrified beyond all else that he had somehow killed him.

Padfoot whined in Moony’s ear and waited tensely for an answer. Moony stirred, but only barely, and made a garbled noise that was nothing like his earlier growls. His head must have been addled from being thrown against the wall and butted up against. He snuffled against the ground and whimpered. He needed help. There was injury here, and Padfoot searched frantically along the wolf’s body, looking for the signs of self-mutilation, smelling for blood.

There was blood. A lot of blood. But he couldn’t see it, couldn’t get to it – Padfoot shuffled around Moony and pushed his nose against the back of his friend’s neck, trying to turn him over. Moony let out a long, low sound of pain, and tried to turn, failing at first. He couldn’t get his legs beneath him.

After several minutes of gentle pressure and as much support as Padfoot’s canine form could offer, he was able to get Moony’s body flipped so that his left side was exposed. Padfoot stared at his companion and keened quietly at the sight that greeted him.

At some point tonight, Moony had eaten at his own flesh. On the back of his left shoulder was a wound so wide and deep that Padfoot didn’t know if it was fatal. It was full of dirt and gravel, and still weeping blood. Moony blinked up at him, weak and miserable, and Padfoot realized it was no good trying to get this animal to walk down the pathway to the Shrieking Shack, where there was, at least, soft furniture. He knew he had to get help. But there was no help – there was no way out without Peter, unless he used his wand. And he couldn’t get at his wand, couldn’t turn into a human again; no matter how weak the wolf seemed, the scent of another human would drive him right out of his mind. He would lunge for meat without regard for his own wounds, and Remus might not survive it. Remus wouldn’t want to survive anyway, if he bit or killed anyone. He’d told Sirius that on several quiet occasions. It had been his one qualm with allowing them to join him on full moon nights.

"There can’t be any close shaves, there can’t be any injuries. You have to promise me that."

Sirius looked down at him now through Padfoot’s eyes and could not breathe.

Remus would want to die, in the morning. He would waste away if he’d hurt James. Even if he’d hurt Snape. Sirius remembered the blood on the rock – Snape’s blood – and wondered where the rest of him was now. Where James was. Were their bodies in the shack, were their bones torn apart, was he far too late...?

Moony’s eyes fluttered closed. His breathing went rapidly shallower, and Sirius forgot the rest. There was nothing he could do about any of it now. Nothing. He’d caused all this grief – all this – and he would at least save one life out of it. Padfoot put his mouth to Moony’s wound and began to clean it, carefully and gently. Wincing with every sound of pain that issued from Moony, forgetting that he himself was bleeding badly all along his side, Padfoot removed rocks and mud with his tongue, and disinfected the wound as well as he could. Moony’s breathing did not get any deeper, nor did his eyes open again, but he was alive. His wound was clean. And Padfoot wasn’t going anywhere. Sirius didn’t care who found him here, it didn’t matter now if he got into trouble. He padded around to the front of the wolf and nuzzled his nose against Moony’s throat.

Moony sniffed at him, and made a sound of recognition for the first time. The wolf was calm again; he knew his friend. Padfoot hunkered down beside him to wait out the night, determined to monitor Moony’s breathing and not to sleep no matter how tired he became. He turned his head and looked down the tunnel to where a light shone faintly from the Shrieking Shack – where all four of them should have been returning, in just a few hours, without injuries or fears. Sirius wondered if Moony would try to follow him, if he ventured down into the shack to look for James and Snape.

He jumped at the sensation of something wet and warm against his side, and rolled his eyes toward whatever it was.

Moony was half-propped up on his forelegs; he had leaned over Padfoot and was tending the wound he’d made along his side. Padfoot tried to stop him – tried to move away – wished he had words. You don’t have to help me. I don’t deserve it. Moony whined a little and tried to pull his body toward him, working to continue the cleaning process. This was how a pack worked. This was the way things were done. And Sirius could see, behind the wolf’s focused yellow gaze, the guilt already taking shape in Remus, who believed he was responsible for this. Padfoot shut his eyes against that look and allowed the cleaning process to continue, knowing that to move again would only make it harder on Moony. He felt the soft, weak movements of the wolf’s loyal tongue, and wondered how he was ever going to look Remus in the eye again.

~*~

"Please take a chair."

It was an awkward moment, as Sirius hadn’t taken a chair in some twelve years, but he managed to pick himself up and find one. Dumbledore’s eyes never left him, and he wondered if he would have a chance to escape after all. Perhaps the headmaster would sit with him until the Dementors came. The thought of being delivered into their hands by Dumbledore made his stomach turn worse than anything had so far. He had to find a way to make him see the truth – and quickly.

"Professor," he rasped, but stopped short at the arrested look on Dumbledore’s face.

He’d probably like to forget that he ever taught me anything. But he continued. There wasn’t time. "You said Harry’s in the hospital wing – then he’s alive – the Dementors –"

Dumbledore held up a hand, his face still oddly frozen, and Sirius heard himself panting. He hadn’t even meant to ask about Harry.

"There is no information–" Dumbledore’s voice was far too calm, "– regarding Harry and his friends that I will give you."

Because I’m a killer. Sirius gave an instinctive, animal whine.

Dumbledore raised his eyebrows; his eyes flitted to Sirius’s throat and lingered there. "There are bite marks on your neck… I see you’ve run into an old friend." He met Sirius’s eyes. "And yet you remain human. Extraordinary. Unless…" An idea dawned slowly in his pale gaze.

"I’m innocent." Sirius could wait no longer for Dumbledore to work out the truth on his own. He’d waited too long already. "I’m innocent, Professor – you have to believe me – please. Twelve years. Listen to me."

"I am listening." Dumbledore’s voice was very faint and his knuckles were white on the arms of his chair.

"Peter Pettigrew –" Sirius began fervently, and stopped. He would have to start before that. "I’m an Animagus – that’s how I got out of Azkaban and into Hogwarts – an unregistered Animagus. So was James. So is Peter." Sirius stopped speaking long enough to quell the doubt in Dumbledore’s expression. He got out of his chair and crouched on all fours. Seconds later, Padfoot panted up at the old headmaster, whose head shook slowly from side to side.

"I should have known…"

Sirius became himself again and sat on the edge of his chair, heart racing wildly. Dumbledore looked less wary now, more willing. There was a chance. He continued to confess, quickly, praying that it would all make sense. "We did it on our own, to look out for Remus. We didn’t tell you because we knew you’d stop us. James was a stag –"

Dumbledore sat up straighter and leaned forward slightly. "A stag…"

"Yes, a stag – and I was a dog, obviously, and Peter –" he spat the word, "– was a rat. He used to push the knot on the Willow for us. And that boy – the one with Harry – red hair, Ralph, or Rob, or –"

"Ron."

"Right. Have you ever seen his pet rat with him?"

Dumbledore lifted two fingers to his right temple and rubbed circles against it. "Yes."

"Then you might have seen he’s missing a toe." Sirius yanked the crumpled Daily Prophet photo of the Weasleys and Wormtail from his robes and thrust it out to Dumbledore, who took it with fingers that shook slightly. "There. That’s him. And he’s no pet. Ron’s rat is Peter Pettigrew. He’s alive, he’s here, and he was –" Sirius choked and shut his eyes, remembering. "Why didn’t we listen to you? Why didn’t we let you do it?"

The headmaster’s breathing became dry and irregular.

"Peter was their Secret-Keeper at the end, not I." Sirius opened his eyes and let his gaze lock on Dumbledore’s. See through me, like you used to. "I convinced James and Lily to switch at the last minute – I told them no one would ever suspect Peter – and wasn’t I right? God, wasn’t I right." He gave a howling, frenzied sort of laugh. "Fool. I was a fool to put such lives in his hands." He inhaled deeply, trying to focus, searching himself for more facts that would clear him. "He cut off his own finger right in front of my face, he blew the street apart, transfigured and ran away… I think I went mad at that moment, I couldn’t react…. I’d just seen Godric’s Hollow – Lily and James – their bodies… and Harry. His head was bleeding like mad but he didn’t even cry – I gave the baby and the motorcycle to Hagrid and went after Peter – and the next thing I knew, Crouch was telling everyone there was no need for a trial, but there was, because I never –"

"Enough," Dumbledore said gently. He raised his hand again, but this time it was a gesture of mercy. His eyes were full of bitter sadness and terrible comprehension.

And belief.

Sirius felt his eyes begin to water. If this man believed him, if Dumbledore believed him, then there was nothing to fear. "I didn’t break out of prison to hurt Harry," he finished hoarsely. "I never betrayed the Potters. I came here for Peter. Just Peter."

"And Remus…?"

"Was never involved. He had no idea where I was or what I was doing. We haven’t had a word of contact in twelve years until tonight, I swear it."

Dumbledore nodded, evidently satisfied, and Sirius’s heart leapt violently into his throat. He was trusted. He was believed.

"Someone has to track down Peter," he said suddenly, leaping to his feet with a growl he could not control. "He ran into the forest –"

"And is beyond our reach." Dumbledore shook his head. "I have reason to believe… but there is no time." Something flickered in his eyes. "Cornelius Fudge will be here at any moment, and I have no power to overrule whatever sentence he chooses for you."

Sirius’s knees buckled; he fell into his chair. "Wh… what are you… but you know. You can’t let the Dementors…" He had never seen helplessness on Dumbledore’s wizened face but he saw it now, and it terrified him. "Albus," he whispered. "There were witnesses. Harry and Ron and the girl –"

"Are thirteen. Their testimony will be dismissed. What did Severus witness?"

"Nothing… he was unconscious."

Dumbledore grimaced. "Then his testimony will work directly against you, I’m afraid."

Hysteria began to build in Sirius. He couldn’t actually be saying that there was no way out, not now that it was all so close to being over. "Make Fudge wait until tomorrow to punish me," he begged, his voice rising. "Remus isn’t fit to give testimony until the sun comes up, but when he’s back – he believes me. He knows."

"The Ministry is aware that Remus Lupin is a werewolf," Dumbledore said quietly. "He is registered. And you realize, better than most, that –"

"HE’S NO MORE DARK CREATURE THAN I AM DEATH EATER!" Sirius cried, abandoning reason entirely. "Damn all of this, there has to be a way! YOU CAN’T LET THEM HAVE ME."

"Sirius."

"NO! Do you have any idea where I have been?" He stopped on the edge of a sob and breathed heavily, gripping the sides of his seat.

Dumbledore rose from his chair suddenly, his face full of grave determination. "I will do everything in my power to help you, Sirius," he said. "But I must warn you now… in honesty… that it may not be enough."

The headmaster was leaving him alone, with no guarantee that he would not be kissed. Sirius wanted to stand, to run to the door and catch Dumbledore by the wrist and keep him there, but he could not get hold of his senses or his limbs. "They say it’s worse than death…" he finally said, feeling as though his voice echoed from somewhere very far away. "They say it’s worse than Azkaban. Though I have to say I can hardly imagine…"

Dumbledore paused at the door and his eyes seemed to turn inward, as if he were thinking very deeply about something. "Sirius," he said abruptly, "always bow to a hippogriff. Hold perfect eye contact. And wait for it to bow in return, before attempting to mount it."

Sirius looked incredulously at the headmaster, who had clearly snapped and was, for some reason, reciting seventh year Care of Magical Creatures lessons to him. "What?" he asked faintly.

Dumbledore searched his eyes. "As I said. I will do everything in my power to help you." He pulled his wand. "But I beg you to prepare yourself for… all things."

Sirius whimpered aloud, and pressed his body into the chair as though he could become one with it and escape the Dementors that way.

"Someone will return for you very shortly. If it is to be Fudge, then I promise to be with him. In the meantime…" Dumbledore’s expression softened incredibly and Sirius felt sick to his stomach. He was being looked at like a man about to die. "Is there anything that I can give you?" Dumbledore lifted his wand in simple offer.

Rope, Sirius thought, remembering the window. A disguise. An Invisibility Cloak. A steak. A washrag. A wand.

"Harry," he croaked, out of nowhere. "He’s happy here?" It was not what he had intended to ask, but he found he could not wait for the answer.

Dumbledore smiled wanly. "I believe he is. As often as can be expected."

"He looks like James," Sirius continued, not sure why this was so important. "Doesn’t he? With Lily’s eyes."

Dumbledore sighed, and opened the door. "Yes, he does."

"And tell him – if I don’t get a chance to – tell him that he is everything his parents hoped he would be."

"I will," Dumbledore answered, his voice uncharacteristically raw. "Prepare yourself, Sirius." And then he shut the office door, locking Sirius in alone, to wait.

~*~

The next thing he felt was something nipping at his ankles. His legs. His tail. There was a determined squeak in his ear, and then small teeth nibbled at his scalp in frustration.

Wormtail. Padfoot rolled toward him and swatted on instinct, and then realized he was still in the tunnel. He remembered the events of the previous night in a blur of images that made his brain spin. Panic seized his heart; he’d fallen asleep and left Moony to suffer – and he’d never checked on James, who, if he had escaped, had never returned to help them – and Snape’s blood was somewhere in this tunnel – it was surely morning and Madam Pomfrey would be on her way to collect Remus –

Remus. Padfoot turned his eyes, most unwillingly, on what had been a wolf the last time he’d seen it. Now it was a half naked boy, sandy haired and pale, lying on his stomach with his hands splayed out above his head. His shirt, already fraying at the edges, was ripped to shreds across the back, and his bared shoulder was exposed to the elements, a mangled pit of torn flesh and muscle and congealing blood. He was breathing – if only barely – his lower back rising and falling in almost undetectable increments. He was unconscious.

But Wormtail didn’t seem at all interested in any of this; he chattered quickly in his high, clicking sort of way, darting back and forth between Remus and the tunnel’s exit, looking extraordinarily agitated. And Padfoot knew that his behavior could only mean that the school nurse was approaching to collect Remus’s limp form, and that she would see them both. If Snape hadn’t already had a chance to tell Dumbledore everything, then Madam Pomfrey certainly would.

A thudding noise from up near the Whomping Willow’s trunk, and a sudden shaft of light from their usual exit hole, sent Padfoot and Wormtail flying in the direction of the Shrieking Shack. They moved with silent, desperate speed, and came to rest in the darkness of the tunnel only after they heard Madam Pomfrey’s frightened gasp.

"Remus – Mr. Lupin – can you hear me? How on earth…" She sucked in a hissing breath. "Ohhh, that shoulder. Oh, poor boy. Poor boy." She muttered the spell that Sirius knew made Remus lie flat and levitate. He heard Remus moan.

"It’ll only be a moment, love. Just hold on."

There were distant footsteps, and then another thud sounded. The passage was clear. After waiting the necessary, excruciating minutes it would take for Madam Pomfrey to cross the lawn, Wormtail darted to the exit and Padfoot bounded after him, wanting air, and light, and to know what had happened to James and Snape. Please not James. Please no one dead. I can’t live with that, I can’t, I can’t –

The tree went still above him, and he wiggled through the exit and out onto the grounds, shaking out his fur as soon as he got his footing. Dirt and blood scattered everywhere, hitting Wormtail, who made a high-pitched, angry noise, and suddenly yelled out:

"Stop it!"

Peter was Peter again, and Sirius, after a few moments that were far more uncomfortable than usual, was Sirius. He looked down at his side and grimaced. His shirt was torn right in half, on the side, and the wound stretched from his armpit to his hip. Another bite wound throbbed on the back of his thigh. Both were crusted with blood. At least I know they’re clean.

"Where’s James. Just tell me." He advanced on Peter. "Where’s James?" he asked harshly, when an answer didn’t come right away.

"He’s in Gryffindor!" Peter spat, and turned on his heel, beginning the march up to the castle.

Relief, sheer and dizzying, flooded Sirius. "And Snape?" he managed, praying for an all-around miracle.

"Buggered if I know! Alive, if you care! Don’t talk to me, you almost got me killed and you don’t even have the decency to apologize for it! I wouldn’t’ve come down here and got you if it hadn’t been bad on all of us if you got caught, and James wasn’t about to do anything to help you, and I don’t blame him!"

Sirius could not remember Peter ever having given such a speech. He opened his mouth to shout back at him – to defend himself, to put the blame elsewhere, as he was wont to do in sticky situations. But no words came. Peter’s round, blond head shook angrily in front of him, and Sirius found that he had no wish to contradict his friend’s explosive words. Peter was right. He’d put them all in danger. And nothing mattered, so long as they all were safe.

Remus isn’t. Not yet. And when he finds out what you did…

He followed Peter across the wet, empty grounds. Dawn had scarcely broken and the air was still damp, cool and grey – and silent, except for Peter’s furious, heavy breathing. Sirius hardly heard it; his own thoughts hounded him as they walked into the castle and went up the winding corridors and shifting steps to the seventh floor.

He’s going to live, and he’s going to hate you.

"Furnunculus," Peter muttered, and the Fat Lady opened after giving them each a deeply disapproving glance. Sirius scowled at her and clenched his fists, wanting to tell her to shut up. She never really knew what was happening. And he was going to have enough disapproval to deal with once —

"I can’t understand why he’d…"

"Shh, I think that’s him."

Lily and James sat together in the window seat, both pale-faced and watching. Waiting. Sirius climbed through the portrait hole and struggled to meet either one of their unblinking looks. He settled for facing Lily, thinking that perhaps her eyes would be the more merciful. He was wrong.

"James told me what you said to Severus," she said, her voice terribly quiet. There were sleepless rings under her green eyes. "Is it true?"

Sirius looked at James immediately, wanting to scream at him. Why? Why did you have to tell her? Isn’t it enough that nobody else is going to look at me the same way, anymore?

Instead, he crossed his arms and tried to face down James’s strangely empty stare. "And what happened to you?" he demanded. "Where were you? Didn’t Peter tell you what was happening down there? I nearly –" His eyes darted to Lily. He was unsure of just how much she’d been told, and so he checked himself and returned his glare to James. "Can’t we do this without…?"

James got to his feet and nodded. "Peter, if you don’t mind, I want to talk to Sirius alone."

Peter shot Sirius one final, dirty look, and then dashed up the stairs, apparently in no hurry to see any further fighting.

"Thanks for waiting up with me," James murmured to Lily, kissing her cheek when she stood beside him. "Go and get some sleep."

Lily nodded and her hair caught the first light of the sun. "I’m glad you’re safe," she whispered quickly, and touched the dark red, swollen knot that seemed to be rising on the right side of James’s jaw. "See you at breakfast." And, after a fleeting glance toward Sirius that left him feeling shot through the heart, she was gone.

Silence descended on the common room. Sirius thought he could hear his own heart.

"What happened to me?" James’s voice was low and cutting. "Where was I?"

Sirius bristled. He fought to keep his voice down. "That’s right. Where were you? Peter must’ve told you that Remus nearly had my throat ripped out down there."

"Peter couldn’t find me," James said, obviously fighting hard to keep his voice level, "because I was putting Snape’s body in Dumbledore’s office."

Something cold and horrible edged into Sirius’s blood. "Body?" he repeated faintly. "Peter said he was alive."

"Oh, you care, do you?" James flexed his fingers and balled them into fists, and Sirius noticed that a bandage had been wrapped around his lower left arm. There was blood on it. "He’s alive, because I shoved him out of the way when Moony charged him, and he got knocked out cold on a rock. And it’s a damn good thing he went unconscious," James went on, in a whisper, "because I had to transform right in front of him, and chase Moony back to the shack, and get Snape the hell out of there. He saw Moony transform. I saw it, and believe me, if I’d been a minute later, someone would be dead." He shook his head, the rising sun glinting off his glasses and making the knot on his jaw even more visible. It looked bad. "Dead. I want you to hear that, Sirius."

"I don’t need a lecture from you." The words were cold, and perfectly pronounced, and Sirius was shocked to recognize that he sounded very much like Severus Snape. "But I’m so glad you waited up to share all your heroics. Good show, pushing that dirty bastard out of the way and putting yourself in danger. I’m so impressed."

James looked incredulously at him. "You haven’t learned a thing, have you?"

"Keep your prefect badge to yourself, Potter, I’ve had just about enough of you." Sirius moved toward the stairs, but James deftly cut him off.

"Don’t tempt me, Black."

"To what? Punch me out?" Sirius turned to the side and pulled back his torn shirt, exposing the rip in his flesh. "Think I’m going to care, after you left me down there to get this?"

James made a noise of pure disgust. "Get out."

"I live here." He tried to shove past James, and to his surprise, James shoved back. Hard.

"I said get out. Go to Dumbledore’s office, he’s waiting for you."

Sirius’s jaw dropped. James had told Dumbledore. James, who had always covered for him, no matter the damage. "Oh, sold me out to him too, did you?"

"How you can talk about selling anybody out is beyond me."

Sirius laughed harshly. "I didn’t tell Snape anything he didn’t already know, except about that knot, and if he went down there, knowing what he was going to find, then he’s a bigger idiot than I –"

"He didn’t know a thing. He was bluffing you, Sirius. You told him everything he knows."

Sirius blanched. "Liar," he whispered, but James didn’t look like he was lying.

"And even if he’d known," James continued, eyes flashing furiously, "you sent him down there for Remus to hurt, and you know how Remus feels about what he is, you know better than anybody, and you just went ahead and… Sirius… Moony nearly got me, he tried to kill Snape, Peter says he almost ate him, and look what he did to you." James pointed at the wound on Sirius’s side. "He has to live with all that. Don’t you care about him? Aren’t you supposed to be his friend? How could you ever tell anyone how to get to him, Sirius, how could you do it? That wasn’t just some bit of gossip, that wasn’t negotiable information – what were you thinking? You did worse than kill him – you took his dignity –"

Sirius swung. Even as he did it, he knew that it was a mistake, but he swung right for James’s nose, and missed him completely.

James, however, did not miss, and the crunch that sounded next was the sound of his fist connecting with Sirius’s temple. Sirius stumbled back, away from the stairs, tripping over the edge of the rug as he went. He fell backwards, landing hard on his tailbone and trying to brace himself with his hands. He felt one wrist twist, badly. He couldn’t right himself at all, couldn’t get to his wand fast enough.

Or maybe I don’t want to. Maybe I don’t want to win this.

James was already upon him, pinning him to the floor, his chest heaving with emotion and his face taut with anger. Sirius swung again, but James grabbed his already-injured wrist and twisted it hard. Sirius let out an angry sound of pain and confusion.

"Go on, have at me, do whatever you want, I don’t care," Sirius heard himself cry, "I don’t care, go on, knock me out, do whatever you did to Snape, come on James, do it!" He knew he was babbling, and didn’t know how to stop. He also knew that he meant it. He wanted James to knock him out. "Scared to hurt me, well too late, come on, let’s have your best swing – do it, Potter – HIT ME – "

But James seemed to have no intention of hitting him. Instead he unpinned Sirius, released his wrist, and sat back on his heels, then pushed up his glasses and looked quietly down at him. Sirius sat up, still hollering, and flung himself violently at James’s kneeling form, but instead of continuing to fight him, James caught him and held him.

Sirius slumped. "Oh, god, I didn’t mean to tell him anything – " he cried out, finally saying the only words he really meant. "I didn’t, I swear it, I didn’t, I wasn’t thinking straight, you know me, you know me…" He drew a gasping breath and sobbed, once, on James’s shoulder. "You know me," he cried again, his voice raw. "If I’d known, or thought, for one second, then I never… I never… Remus…" He had no more words. There was nothing but a losing struggle against tears, and James’s hands, helping him to his feet; James, guiding his blind stumble to the portrait hole.

"You have to go and see Dumbledore," James said resignedly.

Sirius gasped for air again, trying to compose himself before he left. It wasn’t easy, his heart felt sick and his skin didn’t fit, and James was watching him. He wished James wouldn’t watch him. He pushed open the portrait and stopped, not sure he could walk it alone.

"Go on."

"No! He can’t go like that."

Lily’s whisper arrested them both; she was dressed in nightclothes now but had obviously been sitting on the stairs and listening to their battle. Tears shone in her eyes.

"Dumbledore can’t know he’s been bitten, or he’ll think he was bitten as a human and that he’s a werewolf. Otherwise you’ll have to tell him everything, and I don’t think… I don’t think you should." So she knows everything, now. Good. She should take my place. Lily looked at James. "Go up and get him some robes that don’t show the wounds, and I’ll fix his face."

Sirius didn’t know what she was talking about, and Lily didn’t give him time to find a mirror. He didn’t even have time to lift his hands. James rushed out of the common room and Lily lifted her wand.

"Abstergo."

There was a stinging, disinfecting sensation on Sirius’s forehead, then his cheek, and then his jaw, followed by a feeling of something flaking away from his skin.

"Dissimulo," Lily muttered next, and Sirius recognized the charm. A Glamour. He must look fairly beaten-up, if she had to use that one. Lily pointed to his side and said the charms again, then did his thigh. "In case," she said quietly. "Dumbledore might check… I don’t know. Just in case." She lowered her wand and then, after what looked to be something of an internal struggle, she sighed and raised it again, pointing it at the wound on Sirius’s side. "Demo Dolor," she said softly, and then met his eyes.

The pain in the wound abated at once. Sirius swallowed, not sure why she’d done that. "Thanks," he managed, wishing he could ask her to fix his throbbing wrist, though he didn’t dare. He didn’t deserve as much as she’d already done.

"Here." James had returned, thrusting out a set of normal work robes. Sirius donned them immediately, feeling as if he were dressing for his execution. "Damn, you’re good at Charms," James said quietly to Lily, and she smiled thinly at her wand.

"Yes, well." She looked up at Sirius for a long moment, and he wasn’t sure, but her eyes seemed full of pity. "See you later," she finally said, and after briefly touching James’s hand, she went upstairs again.

Sirius didn’t wait another moment. Glamours, he knew, lasted an hour at most. Sick at heart, he pushed open the portrait hole and climbed into the corridor, feeling even worse when James shut the door behind him without a word. The hallway looked long, stony and cold, and it took all his effort to begin the walk to Dumbledore’s office.

You did worse than kill him – you took his dignity –

The suits of armor stood stiller than ever. There was no sound of Filch, no padding of Mrs. Norris. No one was awake enough to be on the way down to breakfast, the smell of which was already wafting up the stairs and making Sirius nauseated.

How could you ever tell anyone how to get to him, Sirius, how could you do it? That wasn’t just some bit of gossip, that wasn’t negotiable information –

The gargoyle outside of Dumbledore’s entrance stairs was silent. On instinct, Sirius reached into his pocket for the map, but it wasn’t there, and he didn’t know the password. He supposed he should have asked James and Lily. Prefects always knew how to get to the headmaster; it wasn’t the most well protected secret in the school — Remus had been that.

How you can talk about selling anybody out is beyond me.

Sirius moved to sit down by the wall and wait for Dumbledore to come out, but before he’d even crouched, the gargoyle stirred. The wall opened and the moving staircase was revealed. Sirius stood on the first step and let it take him up to the door, his feet feeling heavy, his heart very cold.

There can’t be any close shaves. There can’t be any injuries.

He has to live with all that. Don’t you care about him? Aren’t you supposed to be his friend?

James told me what you said to Severus. Is it true?

How could you – tell him – no matter – what?

Dumbledore was seated behind his desk, his back straight against his chair and his hands clasped before him. Sirius tried to meet his eyes and failed. He lingered in the door, not sure where to go.

"Be seated."

It was worse than anything. There was nothing of the usual twinkle, nothing to relieve the gravity in that all-knowing voice; Dumbledore had not even addressed him by his name. Sirius took the empty chair that faced the desk, feeling lonelier than he had ever felt in his life, keeping his eyes fixed on the carpet between his feet. It was a nice carpet. Friendly. Warmly toned.

It took a long time for Sirius to realize that Dumbledore did not intend to begin the conversation – at least, not as long as Sirius hung his head. Summoning the scraps of courage that remained to him, he raised his eyes and met the headmaster’s, which had always been light, encouraging, thoughtful, wise.

They were ice blue. Sirius shivered and looked away at once, unable to bear the terrible punishment of being looked at that way. He searched for another place to look, and his eyes fell on Fawkes, who looked back at him in some sort of… confusion. The enormous bird rose suddenly from its perch and came to Sirius’s knee, where it studied his face and let out a strange, trilling noise, like a question.

Oh no. Oh, don’t cry on me, you stupid bird, don’t cry on me, he can’t know I’ve got wounds…

Fawkes considered him for another moment, and then returned to his perch with a noise almost like a human sigh.

Relieved that Fawkes hadn’t given him away, Sirius braced himself and forced his eyes to Dumbledore again. This time, he allowed himself to be pinned by the unyielding focus of the headmaster.

Dumbledore watched him in excruciating silence; Sirius thought that he would never speak. When the grim line of the headmaster’s mouth opened behind his silvery moustache, Sirius readied himself for the blow he knew was coming.

"Why did you do this?"

Sirius flinched. He had been expecting anger, fury, some level of righteous rage – anything but such a deep and sorrowful disappointment. And to make it worse, he had no ready answer. He searched himself for the usual excuses, and opened his mouth to try and explain.

"It was Snape…" he faltered. "He…"

You’re awfully sure of yourself for a wizard who can’t mix a potion to save his shabby little friend’s life.

"It was right after the Quidditch match and I was…"

Underage students buying restricted ingredients…. poisoning their friend…

"I didn’t… I don’t…"

I’m just on my way to Dumbledore, I’m sure he’ll find this most interesting… it’s just a shame you didn’t finish the job. How I’d love to see you in Azkaban. That is, if the Ministry decides Lupin’s life is actually worth something…

"I don’t know why I did it," he finally whispered, ashamed to realize that there were so many lies and so many secrets that there was no way of explaining the situation to Dumbledore. No way at all. "I was angry and I… I slipped." It was the unembellished truth. His voice was dry. Dumbledore’s eyes did not change. And he realized, as his own words met his ears in the deadly quiet room, how stupid his reasoning sounded.

Another painful silence passed before Dumbledore unfolded his hands and picked up the Daily Prophet. He pushed it across the desk toward Sirius, who warily took it and read the screaming headline: ST. MUNGO’S MEDIC MISSING. He blinked up at the headmaster. "I don’t understand."

"You are aware, I think," Dumbledore said gravely, "of what is happening in the world."

The cold in Sirius’s chest slid like a weight into his stomach. "I am, Professor."

"I understand that you mean to work against it."

Sirius’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. Never had he discussed his after-school plans with anyone but James, Remus, and Peter. "I do," he answered slowly, wondering what the point of all this was.

"The missing medic’s name was Aelred Harper." Dumbledore looked squarely at Sirius.

"Harper…" Something clicked in Sirius’s head. "He was working on the Wolfsbane Potion." He swallowed. "What happened to him?"

"The details are unavailable to me, but you and I both know that very few of those who go ‘missing’ are ever found."

"I know." Sirius stared at the picture of the laboratory beneath the headline. Beside it was the headshot of a middle-aged man, somewhat handsome, squinting professionally at a phial of something, and then turning toward the camera as if he were annoyed to see it there. He waved Sirius away impatiently and returned to his experiment. "What did they want him for?"

"A secret of his. I knew it, and believed myself to be the only person with the information, but now that he has disappeared I cannot help but wonder if he trusted someone else. Someone who, perhaps, was unable to keep the secret to himself."

Something dark writhed deep in Sirius’s gut.

Dumbledore continued. "Aelred was not an unwise man. If he trusted someone, then he had good reason to do so."

Sirius’s eyes shifted past the edge of the newspaper and found the carpet again. He concentrated on its golden shapes, trying hard not to hear what Dumbledore was saying.

"I cannot imagine that a person deserving of his trust would have purposefully betrayed it. Perhaps it was accidental. Perhaps the keeper of that information was unable to control his temper."

Sirius’s heart beat an irregular, painful rhythm against his chest.

"Aelred will never know. Regardless, I do not imagine that Aelred, at the moment of his death, was interested in explanations. Do you think he was?"

Sirius struggled against the stinging in his eyes. He didn’t even try to find his voice; instead, he shook his head and replaced the Daily Prophet on the headmaster’s wide desk.

"Last night, had circumstances been slightly different, you too might have a death to account for. So might Remus Lupin. Is that clear?"

Sirius tried to nod. It was difficult.

"Know your priorities, Sirius. Find them and know them – and do not abandon them for any reason, least of all to satisfy your temper. Last night, your dislike for Severus Snape outweighed your loyalty to Remus Lupin. Is that clear?"

Sirius nodded again, but even now, his mind betrayed the guilt in his heart. My dislike? Try my hatred.

"I cannot punish you for this." Dumbledore’s voice was weary, and Sirius heard him sink back into his chair. He looked up at the headmaster, confused and panicked.

"You’re…not going to… punish me?" He ached at the thought. There should be some disciplinary action, some forced retribution, something to let him feel that he had atoned. Dumbledore had to punish him, and hard.

The light blue eyes looked at him steadily; Dumbledore’s hands lay open in silent question, palms up on the folds of his winkling robes. "Would you like a detention?" he asked simply. "Perhaps I should take fifty house points?"

Sirius understood. There was nothing good enough. All of the usual student punishments seemed tawdry, and somehow insulting toward Remus, as if the loss of Gryffindor points would equal the betrayal. "You have to suspend me from the school, don’t you?" Sirius asked finally, his voice barely audible. His mind reeled. He couldn’t imagine life without Hogwarts. Without James. Without Remus. Even without Peter.

Whether you’re in Hogwarts or not, it’s going to be a life without Remus.

"No, Sirius. You face no suspension; perhaps partly because I have no way of explaining the situation in its entirety to your family without betraying Mr. Lupin’s trust myself."

A light flashed on in Sirius’s mind. "But Snape," he said quickly. "Snape saw Remus transform, he knows – he’ll tell everyone, Professor, he’s been waiting for an opportunity like this and –"

Dumbledore held up a hand; the lines on his face seemed deeper than they ever had and Sirius noted, for the first time, the shadows under his eyes. "Severus Snape has given me his word that he will keep Mr. Lupin’s business private."

"But, Professor –"

"Enough."

The word was sharper than any Dumbledore had ever spoken to him, and Sirius fell quiet, chastised, seething inwardly. Snape’s word – that was what they had to go on, now. And it was his fault, his own fault, and nothing in the world could be done about it. He felt as though his heart was thrashing about in his ribs, and the flames in Dumbledore’s fireplace seemed to mimic his feelings, leaping restlessly up from the embers and flickering helplessly against the walls of the flue.

A clock chimed from the corner behind Sirius, making him jump. Breakfast. He tried to imagine sitting beside Remus in the Great Hall, with Snape full of knowledge just behind them, and the thought made him physically ill. Bile rose in his throat.

"Perhaps there is a way…" Dumbledore mused absently, and Sirius met his gaze. The headmaster’s eyes locked on his, and Sirius felt suddenly dizzy and afraid, as though he were being entirely measured and seen. "You will go to the hospital wing." Dumbledore’s voice seemed faded and old. Almost regretful. "Someone must explain to Mr. Lupin what has caused him to suffer such a… difficult transformation."

Sirius pushed his chair back several inches without meaning to. Some survival instinct – perhaps it was Padfoot – made him alert in every muscle; he felt as though he might flee the room against his own better judgment. "I can’t," he choked. And he couldn’t. He couldn’t face Remus, weak and recovering in a hospital bed, bleeding because he’d been betrayed. He couldn’t face inflicting another injury on him. A deeper injury.

Dumbledore gestured to the door. "The hospital wing, Mr. Black."

It was the only fitting punishment.

Sirius stood on shaking legs and made his way out.

~*~

Under any other circumstances, Professor Flitwick’s office would have been extremely cozy. Sirius looked around from the bright desk, to the thick carpets, to the little, crackling fire, and wondered dully if he was going to vomit. To be comfortable, in a regular chair, for the first time in over a decade… to be warm, to have been spoken to with respect… and yet to know that at this very moment, Snape was certainly leading the Minister and his creatures directly toward him… Sirius knew that he would rather be locked up in Azkaban, where at least he was alive, than wandering the world in soulless freedom. He also knew that they would never put him back – not now that they knew he could escape. Sirius eyed the handle of the door and strained to hear footsteps in the corridor beyond it. It was silent now, but he knew that it could not be long. And when the door opened again, he would have less than nothing.

Sirius stood and strode to the door. He pulled on the handle. He threw his weight against the wood. But the hinges did not so much as creak, and he knew quite well that whatever spell Dumbledore had cast, it could not be broken without a wand. He stalked quickly to the window, which was not so high as he had thought, though it was just as small. Still, he thought he might be starved enough to push his way through it, if there were only some way down. He tried the lock to no avail, but knew that there were ways of breaking Locking Charms even without magic, and did not panic yet. He braced his hands on the sill and stared down at the ground instead. His heart sank. There were no ledges, no footholds, no helpful rocks protruding from the castle’s high stone sides.

Defeated, Sirius turned his back on the window and looked listlessly at the fire.

He would die here. And he did not even have Peter’s worthless hide to show for it. Sirius bared his teeth at the mere thought of Wormtail, and let out a strange, feral hiss. He could still smell him – Peter’s scent lingered under Sirius’s nose as if it had somehow sunk into the fabric of his very robes, pungent, rodent like, making his senses scream for vengeance. He had been so close… so maddeningly close. He could have done it. Should have done it. How he had longed – craved – to hear Peter scream, to see his eyes go hollow, to watch him buck in soundless death and crumple to the dirt in a dead, filthy heap.

But it had been Harry’s decision. And Harry… damn him… was James’s boy, all the way to his bones. Almost predictably good and noble – damn him – Sirius threw his fists out against the stone wall and pounded, flung his head back and heard it crack against the window, felt a haze of pain in his hands and skull. Harry had denied him the murder he had given his life to commit.

Harry was his godson and his charge.

Sirius lifted his head, looked at his hands. They were filthy; mud was caked beneath the ragged nails and imbedded in the ridges of the fingerprints. He didn’t need a mirror to know that he looked a fright. But Harry had seen past all that. Harry knew the truth.

Remus knew the truth.

Sirius gave a low, victorious cry, keeping his eyes fixed on the door. If he only had five minutes left to think, then he was damned if he was going to spend it thinking about Peter, and horror, and Azkaban. He smoothed his hands repeatedly against the stone wall on either side of him and shut his eyes, letting his mind wrap fully around new memories – joyous memories.

Unless he was the one… unless you switched, without telling me?

Remus believed. He had come to the truth without any assistance; he had needed only a nod for confirmation, as if he’d never really believed it to begin with. As if he’d been waiting for the truth for twelve years. Sirius shivered even now at the sensation of having been embraced. Human touch, human trust, human respect – and from the only human left on earth who really knew him. There had even been a deep satisfaction in locking Padfoot’s jaw to Moony’s and dragging him into the Forest – violence notwithstanding, the wild joy of being near his animal companion had almost been too much to take. Perhaps he could have that again. Perhaps he could get free.

Not at all, Padfoot, old friend…

He had to get free. His eyes opened and he looked desperately around the office again, as if some new door would appear to him, or as if a length of rope would suddenly be coiled in the corner. But there was nothing of use – nothing – Sirius went suddenly around Flitwick’s desk. He sat in the professor’s chair, began to open all his drawers. Quills, parchment, letter openers, wax waiting to be melted – if only there were matches. Sirius whined desperately under his breath. Oh, how he could have used a match to light the whole place on fire. The chaos would’ve thrown everybody off, making it simple to escape. Why couldn’t he have been locked in the Muggle Studies classroom – why wasn’t there anything of value anywhere in here –

He opened the lowest desk drawer and stopped. It was charmed, cavernous, containing several hundred student files. Before he’d thought about it, Sirius had moved his fingers toward the back of the drawer and begun flicking through the P’s. Parkinson, Patil, Perseus, Phipps, Pickering… Sirius dug further back. Potter. He yanked the file free and set it on the desk. It wasn’t useful. It wouldn’t get him out of the office. But it was all he could know about Harry before the Dementors came. It was everything he had.

Keeping his ears alert for noise, Sirius opened the file and laughed giddily to see James’s… no… that was Harry’s handwriting… Amazing. Amazing that it could be so similar, when there was no way that Harry could know. Sirius’s heart beat terribly fast as he skimmed through Harry’s examinations and papers, looking for clues to the person he was when he wasn’t trapped in the Shrieking Shack shouting bloody murder. Looking for the boy who belonged to Lily and James.

The marks were above average, though many answers on many tests were highly imperfect. "The Levitating Charm is useful for:" one first year question read. "Flying stuff about" Harry had written in the blank. Sirius sniggered helplessly, thinking of Lily’s crossed arms and perfunctory frown, the look she’d given all of them whenever they’d taken schoolwork lightly. She would have used the same look on her son, most certainly. Sirius picked up a second year paper.

Harry Potter, Charms 2

12th October

Is there such a thing as a useless charm?

Yes, there is such a thing as a useless charm. Peskipiski Pesternomus is a charm we learned in Defence class and it doesn’t work at all. It was supposed to help put some pixies back in their cage, but it didn’t even make them slow down. That means it must be useless.

Sirius put down the paper with shaking fingers, amazed that he still knew how to laugh. Harry was normal. Wonderful. James would have taken such pride in him.

With tears in his eyes that were not entirely happy, Sirius flipped to the back of the stack and withdrew a paper that was dated only a few weeks ago.

Harry Potter, Charms 3

4th May

Write about a charm that you would find it hard to do without.

I would find it hard to do without the Patronus Charm. I know we haven’t studied it in this class, but I have been working on it on my own and have managed to produce it once. Even though the thing I knocked down with my Patronus did not turn out to be a Dementor, I am still glad to know that I have studied this Charm, since there are Dementors at Hogwarts.

Sirius stared at the page. So that was how the Dementors had been driven off. Harry must have – but no, that was impossible. There had been far too many Dementors, and Harry was young, his magic couldn’t possibly be that strong yet. Perhaps with the help of his friends... It seemed he had excellent friends…just as his father had, once.

Sirius set down the paper and gazed unseeingly at the door of the office. No voices yet, no footsteps coming for him – but soon. Soon. He smiled bitterly, hoping he would have the strength to be a man when the Dementors came. And they would come. Sirius shut his eyes and tried not to think of it, but the image came unbidden – Albus Dumbledore between Severus Snape and Cornelius Fudge, leading those… creatures. Albus Dumbledore, taking his hand in the last moment of his life and smiling down at him, giving him courage. The swoop of hooded darkness, the stench of death across his face, eclipsing his vision, taking his hearing, filling his brain with screams and bodies – the headmaster’s weathered hand tightening around his own –

And then emptiness.

Sirius gave a dry sob. He was trusted again, and by the only people who counted, yet they had no power to help him. But he had to live. He put his head in his hand and strained his mind for some miraculous answer, unwilling to believe that it would all end here. Not after twelve years of absolute injustice, not when he had kept the Potters’ secret faithfully and suffered for it. Not at the hands of Snape, who would not see reason – who refused to forget the trick.

Remus was still calling it a trick. Sirius laughed mirthlessly at the floor. He deserved that, he supposed. He had betrayed that secret, after all, and the memory of Remus’s eyes afterwards had haunted him in Azkaban along with all the other horrors. But he had never been disloyal to any of them after that, and he had atoned for that first breach of trust.

Oh, had he atoned.

~*~

Even years later, he could not remember a step of his journey between Dumbledore’s office and the hospital wing; he only knew he had felt removed and hollow – and terrified. The image of Remus on his face in the dirt, his shoulder weeping blood, seemed to hang in the air before him as he walked. He saw nothing and heeded no one; he blindly rounded one corner and knocked down a small Slytherin girl, who shrieked with surprise. He set her on her feet with a genuine apology that made her eyes go wide, and kept on walking.

The door to the infirmary had never looked so entirely intimidating. Sirius prayed that Madam Pomfrey wouldn’t be there. There was no way to do it with her there. He wouldn’t confess what he was in front of anyone else. Not that it mattered what anyone thought of him now.

He pushed open the door as quietly as he could, and slipped into the room.

"Sirius —" Relief was evident in Remus’s voice. He struggled to sit up, pushing with his one free hand. He was pale, and his other shoulder was swathed in every bandage known to wizarding kind; a sling held his arm in place, probably so that he wouldn’t move it while the muscles healed. On his head there were two enormous bruises rising close together. His face was scratched. His lip was swollen. He winced, trying to get his back against the headboard. Sirius watched, wanting badly to cross the room and help him, but he stayed still. He didn’t dare touch him. In a moment, Remus would know what he was.

"It’s a good thing you’ve come now," Remus said quickly. He had never looked so like death, the morning after a transformation. Nor had he ever been so animated – so demandingly talkative. His shoulder finally met the headboard; he made a sucking noise of pain and screwed up his eyes for a moment before he could continue. "Madam Pomfrey’s gone down to get me breakfast – hurry, tell me what happened." His eyes were warm. Worried. Trusting. "Snape knows… what I am," he continued, looking around Sirius as if he expected to see Snape there at any moment. "He got into the tunnel and James came down – god, I nearly – Sirius…" His voice tapered off for a moment and his eyes glazed over as if he were imagining the worst possible outcome. "But they got out," he said finally, physically shaking off the fog that had come over him. "And James is all right, isn’t he?"

Sirius worked to shape his mouth and make a sound. "Yes."

"And Snape?"

"Yes."

Remus let out a breath. "I never thought I’d be so glad to hear that." He smiled at Sirius, fully, paralyzing him with guilt. "Although… I don’t suppose he’ll keep it to himself…" he added slowly. His smile faded and his eyes fell shut. "And I don’t suppose Dumbledore will be able to let me stay in school, once everyone knows."

"No one’s going to know – Snape gave his word," Sirius said quickly.

"His word?" Remus’s eyes opened and he laughed bitterly. "And what is his word good for?"

It’s good for more than mine.

"He’s hated me since we were first years, and now I’ve tried to kill him. Do you think he’s going to keep that quiet, Sirius?"

"Yes," Sirius whispered, staring over Remus’s head and out of the window. "I’ll kill him if he doesn’t."

Remus laughed again, and this time the sound was not so bitter. "Padfoot," he said rebukingly. Affectionately.

Sirius wrenched his eyes toward him, unable to stand it any longer. He had to tell him. Now.

But Remus was still speaking. "He hardly deserves to die just because he found me out… I just wish I knew how he’d… You don’t know, do you? It’s so strange, because that knot is a secret. Dumbledore told me that only he and Madam Pomfrey…and then of course, the four of us – possibly Lily…" Remus’s mouth set in a funny, guilty sort of line. "You’ll hate me for thinking this," he said quietly, "but I’ve been going over it in my head all morning and the only thing I can think of is… I know he never would on purpose, but it’s just that no one else… Sirius, you don’t think that Peter…?"

Sirius blanched. The wound on his side was throbbing again suddenly, and he felt for the doorframe. He needed something to hold on to. "Peter never – he never said anything," he managed.

Remus now looked sick with guilt. "No, of course he didn’t – please don’t look like that, I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m just tired. I should never have said that, it was a terrible thing to think." His eyes shut again. "I’m so tired," he repeated. "I’ve never had a night like last night. I don’t know what… but then, it makes perfect sense. The wolf was hungry." Remus shuddered with the usual revulsion and squeezed his eyes more tightly shut. "I hurt you, didn’t I?" he asked in a small voice, shaking his head a little on his pillow. He continued to talk, though his eyes remained closed, and his voice began to fade from exhaustion. "I’m sorry, Sirius. I’m so sorry. Still it’s… good you came to help me… Madam Pomfrey told me it was lucky my shoulder ‘stayed so clean’… Otherwise I’d be so infected by now that I’d probably never heal…" Remus sighed, as if in sleep. "Thank you."

His breathing was shallow; his free hand curled above the blankets in a natural fist; his mouth hung slack. Sirius looked at his quiet face, and wished it a strange, silent goodbye.

"I know how it happened," he rasped suddenly, gripping the doorframe so hard that his fingers felt numb.

Remus inhaled with a sort of gasp, and his eyes came open. "How Snape found the knot, you mean?"

"I told him where it was." Sirius stood in the doorway, panting slightly. The words were out. It was all about to be over.

"You?" Remus made a noise of impatient disbelief, as if he were annoyed with Sirius for having him on. "Very funny. I was almost asleep."

"I thought he knew everything," Sirius continued. He felt blood pounding in his ears, and his voice was toneless. "I didn’t think I was telling him anything he didn’t know. It was after the game, and he said some things that made me think he knew about you, and about the other three of us. And then he said… he said… he insulted you. And I told him I’d kill him. And he asked, why don’t we go out to the Whomping Willow and let Lupin fight his own battles? And I said – I said – " Sirius couldn’t breathe.

"You said?" Remus asked faintly. He was gripping the bedcover with his free hand, and a sheen of sweat had broken out on his pale forehead.

"I told him to go push the knot and find out for himself," Sirius barely managed. "I told him. But Remus, believe me, please believe me, I didn’t mean it, I wasn’t thinking straight or you know I’d never… I’d never…"

Remus’s thin chest rose and fell rapidly. His eyes were fixed, horrified, on Sirius, as if he’d never really seen him before. He opened his mouth, but it fell shut before he was able to say anything.

Sirius dropped his hand from the doorframe and took a step toward him; Remus recoiled.

"You… you played a trick on him?" he breathed. His eyes still gleamed yellow from his battle with the wolf, and suddenly he looked frightening. "Using me?"

"No, not a trick," Sirius begged. "Not like that at all – Moony –"

But Remus quickly turned his head to the side and stared blankly at the bed beside him. His hand rested on his heaving stomach; he looked like he might retch. A moment passed, during which he visibly controlled his breathing and found his voice. "You gave me away to Snape?" he asked hoarsely.

"No — yes — don’t hate me," Sirius said thickly, coming a step closer to the hospital bed.

"Get back." Remus’s voice was low; he turned his empty stare on Sirius and looked more deeply possessed by the wolf than he ever had, in his human form.

Sirius let out a strange whine, in answer. "James already beat it out of me," he pled, "and Dumbledore called me in – Dumbledore talked to Snape, too, he’s not going to tell anybody what he knows –"

"Do you think I care?" Remus interrupted incredulously, panting. "Do you think it matters? He saw me transform. That’s… that’s like…" Remus clenched his bared teeth and smacked the back of his head against the headboard, as if to drive out the memory. "And James saw it…" Remus moaned. "I never wanted anyone to see that…"

Sirius choked. "I’m so sorry," he whispered. "I’m so sorry."

Remus continued to stare at him with those eyes, breathing heavily. "And you knew that," he said. "And you knew I’d attack, you knew, you knew, but you… you just… you just…" He seemed incapable of speech. His chest heaved once and he wrenched both hands up to cover his face, moving the bandaged shoulder so violently that he cried out in pain.

"Here –" Sirius hurried toward him.

"You get out." Remus’s voice was so hard that Sirius stopped in his tracks. "I don’t want to see you," he muttered, from behind his hands. "Get out."

The world spun; Sirius tried to keep hold of his balance and very nearly failed. "Moony…"

"I don’t want to hear that name again." Remus’s voice shook badly. "Not from you."

Something snapped in Sirius’s heart. He fled the hospital room, knocking into Madam Pomfrey as he went. He ran full out to the entrance hall, pushed through the doors, and sprinted toward the Forbidden Forest. Wind cut at his face, his side throbbed, and his muscles burned, but he did not stop until he’d reached a spot far beyond anyone’s sight or hearing, a place where only the beasts in the wood could possibly find him.

There he collapsed.

*

Sirius did not return to Gryffindor tower until late that night, and when he did, swollen-eyed and grass-stained, Lily gazed at him pityingly and James and Peter gave him a wide, silent berth. He didn’t notice or care. He went directly to his four-poster and lay down, staring at the empty bed that was Remus’s. Remus was still in the hospital wing; he’d probably torn his shoulder apart again.

Again, his fault. Sirius curled up against the nauseating guilt, and passed out.

Morning brought breakfast and classes; Sirius attended neither. He found he could not bring himself to open his eyes, much less dress, or move, or speak. His spirit sagged under a terrible weight, and he did not know how to lift it in the slightest, nor did he want to. He felt it was deserved, and welcomed the suffering, wishing he could take all of Remus’s as well. Neither James nor Peter asked him any questions, and no note arrived demanding an excuse for his absence from any class. Perhaps it would have been a worse punishment to force him through classes after all; Sirius considered getting up and making himself go through the agony of pretending things were normal, but discovered that, for once, he was not being dramatic. He tried to sit up behind his hangings, and failed. He had no strength for it. The dormitory was quiet and dark and sickeningly lonely, but he didn’t think he could stand the slightest sound —even the sound of his own breath was abhorrent to him.

The door clicked open and there was a familiar sniffling noise, like someone getting over a cold. The person coughed once, faintly, and walked toward a bed. The person had light footsteps.

Remus.

Sirius lay still and listened. Remus always did the same things, after transformations. He was a habitual person, and rarely went against the orders of Madam Pomfrey, which were always: "Go back to your dormitory and go straight to bed until tomorrow." Sirius could hear him sitting on the edge of his bed now, to peel off his socks and put them neatly in his shoes. There was a rustle of fabric; he had removed his robes and put on his pajamas. His breath became quiet and regular. He was sleeping.

Sirius found himself suddenly capable of motion – he wanted to leave. To give Remus peace. Remus wouldn’t want to be in the same room with him. He rolled quietly out of his bed, padded around the end of his four-poster, and froze. Remus was awake, sitting up straight on the edge of his bed, his back to Sirius. His shoulder was still bandaged, his arm still slung to his chest. He was perfectly still as he stared out the window, his free hand flat on the bed at his side.

In an effort to leave him alone, Sirius took a step backward, hoping to get back in bed without making a disturbance –

"I know you’re there. You’re very loud."

Sirius’s heart pounded. He hadn’t expected to be spoken to, and he didn’t know what to say. Remus didn’t turn, nor did he speak again, and the silence stretched horribly between them.

"I saw the decorations," Remus said hollowly after a while. "I suppose we won the Cup."

Sirius went toward him a little bit – that had been a very normal thing to say. Perhaps it was not quite as bad between them as he had feared. Maybe Remus would understand that he had never meant it – that he would never do it again, under any circumstances. "Yeah, we won," he said lightly. "You should have seen James."

Remus didn’t look at him. "Oh? What did he do?"

Sirius took a careful step closer. "Feinted toward the goal posts and ruined the whole Slytherin strategy in one dive," he answered. He came quietly around to the same side of the bed, and stood awkwardly beside Remus’s seated form. Normally, after a transformation, there would have been laughter – weak, but laughter nonetheless – and a detailed going-over of the previous night’s exploits. Normally there would have been a bit of light punching-on-the-arm, followed by some intentionally obnoxious, nurse-like fussing. He wondered if he should aim for normalcy.

"I’m glad we won," Remus said absently, and shifted the arm that rested in the sling. He winced.

"Need anything?" Sirius asked quickly. If Remus would give him something to do – if he would let him make it up to him…

"No." Remus gazed steadily out the window.

Sirius flailed for purpose. "No?" he repeated stupidly. "You’re sure, nothing? Because I could get you water – or do you want a play by play of what you missed at the game? Or –"

But Remus made a small noise as if Sirius had just caused him some physical pain, and Sirius fell quiet. Remus’s fingers dug into the bedcovers and he began to shake his head slowly from side to side. "Never mind," he said, very quietly. "I thought if I just… but I guess I can’t."

"Remus –"

"Leave me alone, please." Remus swung his legs into the bed and pushed back toward his pillow. He wriggled beneath his covers, pressing his lips together tightly in what looked like pain. He tried to lie flat, but apparently it was unbearable on the left shoulder; he was forced to roll toward Sirius and lie on his right side. Remus stared at the side of his bedside cabinet. A moment later, he reached out with the arm he was lying on, and clumsily tried to pull his hangings shut.

Sirius grabbed them at once, seeing an opportunity to assist, even if it meant putting a wall between them.

"Let go." Remus’s voice was very tired. "I don’t want your help."

"But –"

"No." Remus was still staring at the bedside cabinet. "I trusted you."

Trusted.

Sirius could not have shut the bed curtains if he’d tried. He felt as though all his muscles had suddenly failed him. The most critical trust he had yet earned – gone – and he had given it away. He dropped his hand as Remus struggled alone to close himself into his four-poster.

The curtain was finally shut. The room went quiet.

Sirius knew he should return to his own bed, but he found himself sitting next to Remus’s instead, his head in his hands. He did not get up when James and Peter returned to the room, but kept his numb vigil, and fell asleep curled on the floor before he could remember to move.

~*~

A sharp tap! on the window made Sirius jump; he looked up and his jaw dropped.

Outside the little window of Professor Flitwick’s office, hanging impossibly in the air, was James – no – Harry – riding what looked to be…a hippogriff. Sirius didn’t think; he leapt from his chair and ran to the window, prying at the lock.

"Stand back!" He heard a voice cry. He jumped back and watched as a young girl – the one who had called him "Mr. Black" in the Shrieking Shack – pulled her wand and pointed it at the window. "Alohomora!" she cried, and the window sprang open.

"How – how – ?" Sirius stammered, staring at the hippogriff’s glossy back and the two small legs that clung to it. But Harry and the girl had both been in the hospital wing; surely Snape had made sure that they had stayed there; surely this was a dream.

"Get on – there’s not much time," Harry said. "You’ve got to get out of here – the Dementors are coming – Macnair’s gone to get them."

Sirius needed no further urging. He grasped the stone window frame with both hands and pulled himself through it, struggling to right his body and fling a leg over the back of the hippogriff without slipping and falling down the castle’s side, to his death. He managed to get himself balanced, gripping the sides of the hippogriff’s hindquarters and accidentally shoving the girl who sat between himself and Harry. She clutched at Harry, looking white and terrified.

"Okay, Buckbeak, up!" said Harry, shaking some kind of makeshift leash. Sirius watched him, noting the set of his shoulders, the thrust of his chin as he commanded the animal. "Up to the tower, come on!" His glasses were slipping a little.

God, but he was like James.

Moments later, the hippogriff called Buckbeak had landed them all safely on the battlements of the West Tower, and Harry immediately slid off, his friend right behind him. She looked terrifically relieved to have her feet on the ground. Harry, however, looked urgent.

"Sirius, you’d better go, quick," Harry panted. "They’ll reach Flitwick’s office any moment, they’ll find out you’re gone."

Buckbeak tossed his head and Sirius moved up his back, groping for the leash and pulling it into his hands. He couldn’t take his eyes off of Harry. "What happened to the other boy? Ron?" he croaked, remembering suddenly that Ron had been chained to Peter, who had done something to him – pointed a wand at him, sent him to the ground. The boy who would have died for Harry.

"He’s going to be okay. He’s still out of it, but Madam Pomfrey says she’ll be able to make him better. Quick – go –" Harry looked desperately at him.

But Sirius didn’t move. He couldn’t quite wrap his brain around it. He was on the back of a flying creature, when he had just been locked in a tower classroom. He was on the edge of freedom, when he had just been sure of his doom. He was looking at his godson, who had thought of him as a murderer until tonight, but now believed entirely in his innocence. It was almost like… being forgiven by James, for the enormous mistake that had cost him his life.

"How can I ever thank –" he began uselessly.

"GO!" shouted Harry and the girl together.

Sirius wheeled Buckbeak around, facing the open sky. "We’ll see each other again," he said hoarsely, and he meant it. Harry wanted to live with him, and he would find a way to make that come true. He would be there every step of the way, whenever Harry wanted him, giving him as much as was possible. Harry was everything James would have prized in a son. Everything. "You are – truly your father’s son, Harry…"

Harry did not answer, but the color left his face, and his eyes – identical to Lily’s – shone with sudden and fierce pride.

Sirius wished that he could have gone on, but there was no time left; that was the most he could give Harry, for now. He squeezed Buckbeak’s sides with his heels and felt the hippogriff take off in flight beneath him. He held on with all his might as Buckbeak flew forward, not daring to check back over his shoulder in case he should lose his grip and fall. In any case, there was no point in turning; when he passed through a mask of clouds, moments later, he knew that he was out of sight to Harry. And Harry was out of sight to him. But not forever.

Are you insane? Of course I want to leave the Dursleys! Have you got a house? When can I move in?

You want to? You mean it?

Yeah, I mean it!

Sirius steered Buckbeak above another bank of clouds and headed toward the moon. Somewhere below him he heard a familiar howl – he threw back his head and howled recklessly along.

He was free. And Harry would be free. It was only a matter of time.

~*~

FIN

A/N: Thank you, GinnyPotter and CoKerry, for hashing out some issues with me over very good pancakes. You girls are total Marauders.

Thank you, beta readers and friends extraordinaire: ElanorGamgee, JediBoadicea, Melissa A., and Lyda Clunas.

And thanks mostly to Melissa: for being cool to my cat, for teaching me a few things about writing, for helping me not to cry when Dumbledore was giving me heart failure, and for having the stones to tackle this puppy in the first place. You ROX.

//
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