Notes: There is some use of Welsh; I did not provide translations because it is explained within context. All Welsh mythology is genuine in source, and only slightly twisted to suit my plot purposes. I was at some times rather free with JK Rowling's explantion of the pre-Harry world.
Disclaimer: The lovely and talented JK Rowling so far surpasses me that I hesitate to post; but one cannot help but imagine.
It was nearly dawn.
Remus rose, shivering and holding his cardigan close around his chest. The stove’s warmth had gone out sometime during the night, and the room had frozen over while he slept, as only a room walled with iron could. He imagined the grey light of dawn stealing across the snow-covered lawn of the school, how the stone of the tallest towers would blend to invisibility with the sky, until the sun came. If it did. It was January, the dead of winter, and he felt as if he hadn’t seen the sun for a lifetime.
The house-elves had delivered the components he had requested, laying them out neatly on his bureau. Remus poured water from the pitcher into the cauldron already warmed by a small, dimly glowing brazier. He rubbed his eyes, only briefly debating, as he always did, throwing away the hateful parchment-wrapped and neatly labelled packet that lay accusing him atop the wooden surface. But instead, he seized it, ripped open a corner, and shook out the dried leaves into the steaming water. The smell made him gag. He stirred with a finger, and tipped the mixture into his waterglass. He drank it straight down, not giving himself a chance to pause.
He was shaking when he returned to his bed, burrowing under the covers. Severus, sleeping with his head at the foot of the bed, did not stir as he climbed in. Remus had gotten a fair amount of practise at not disturbing his friend. He curled around himself, pulled the cardigan up over his head and fought the urge to retch as his stomach twisted into knots.
Three days til full moon. He wanted to die.
1975 : Spring
‘You know,’ Peter said.
‘What do I know?’ James looked up from his chess pieces, lightening the scowl of concentration that had gripped his features since Sirius had started winning six moves into the game.
‘The map.’ Peter sat up. ‘When you think about it, the map is only good so long as there aren’t teachers around who are watching out for you, isn’t that so?’
‘S’true,’ Remus confirmed. He lay on his stomach with his schoolbooks open before him, tediously researching his weekend Potions assignment. ‘Professor Lievier was talking to Dumfries’ (the school groundskeeper) ‘and nearly saw me go into the fourth floor closet. I’ve been avoiding it since.’
‘So what are you getting at?’ Sirius took the last of James’s knights. ‘Not much we can do but keep a good look-out.’
‘But maybe that’s just it.’ Unused to having an idea before any of the others, Peter was looking a little green from the pressure. He twisted his pudgy hands in his shirt. ‘I mean if we– if we–‘
Remus’s pale face turned up. ‘Take your time, Peter,’ he said.
‘What we need to do is know before we get there if someone is lurking about.’
James lost his castle next. ‘Well, I’ll agree to that. The question is, how do we accomplish that?’
‘Check,’ Sirius said.
Peter had reached the end of his train of thought, however, and fell back in his window seat with a sigh.
‘Sneakoscopes.’ Remus twisted to grab at his knapsack. ‘Sir John Rochester was the inventor of sneakoscopes.’ He drew dog-eared book from the back flap, and held it up– one of the biographies assigned in History of Magic. ‘They let you know when someone or something around you is– well, sneaky. Up to no good.’
‘I think I’ve seen those in Hogsmeade.’ James cautiously moved his king to the left. ‘They’re expensive. I’m not sure we’d be able to get one.’
‘Plus,’ Sirius added, picking up his queen, ‘*we’re* the ones being sneaky and up to no good. A sneakoscope wouldn’t warn us about teachers, would it?’ He set the queen down with a thump. ‘Check.’
‘I give up.’ James saved Sirius the trouble of knocking over his king. ‘It’s not such a bad idea. Maybe we’re just going about it in the wrong way.’ He threw himself back against his pillows, nudging Sirius’s legs out of the way of his stretch. ‘What’s the opposite of a sneakoscope?’
‘Being boring,’ Sirius muttered. ‘I’m so hungry I could eat a dugbog. Isn’t it dinner time?’
‘Tea time.’ Peter sighed. ‘The house-elves ought to be delivering it to the professors right about now. Tea biscuits. Maybe even those Scottish shortbreads.’
Remus, grinning, ducked his head. ‘I have Bott’s beans in my room. Want me to go get them?’
Peter moved a hand over his rather over-large stomach and sighed mournfully. ‘No. Thanks.’
The other boy began to roll up his parchment anyway, and stuffed his books into his bag. ‘I ought to get going. I promised to help someone with the History essay, and I need a lot of help with this flow chart. Shall I see you at supper?’
Sirius stood and moved to the window after Remus had gone. ‘I hate winter. I’d give anything to be outside.’ The world had become grey-white, stretching as far as he could see; not even very far. The mountain in the distance had been hidden by the flurries in the courtyard. He sighed.
‘You’re one of the itchiest people I know,’ James noted. ‘You could go outside, then. Two hours till the meal. That ought to be enough to be thoroughly frozen, yeah?’
‘I hate being cold even more than I hate being inside,’ he snapped.
‘Well, you want to go play a prank on someone?’ James joined him at the window. ‘Maybe being nasty will even your lovely temper out.’
Sirius flicked him a glare; but he gave it up. James was right. His moods had been changeable since the snow storm had rolled in with February. Most of the moods were bad. But he had never dealt well with being closed in. It made him feel trapped.
‘Peter, you still hungry? We could hit the kitchens and then sneak into the Potions classroom and mix up all the herbs again.’
‘Too soon for that.’ They had played that prank less than a month ago. ‘Professor Turbute will be sure to suspect us. The kitchens would be fine, though.’
‘We could get some sludgeworms from the greenhouse and hide them in the Slytherin laundry.’
‘Wrong time of year for sludgeworms,’ said James.
‘Why don’t we just play another game of chess? Or you could even start on your homework.’
Sirius was horrified. ‘It’s only Saturday!’
‘Remus was doing his homework.’
‘What more proof do you need that he’s weird?’ He kicked a dirty shirt out of his way and jumped onto his bed, reaching up to the shelf he had hung at head-height for his mittens and hacky sack. ‘I am going to go outside. I’ll be at the pitch. I’ll come in for dinner.’
James cast a glance of subdued loathing out the window. ‘Er, want company?’
Sirius had known James wouldn’t be wont to ruin the effects of a day spent beside the fire. ‘No. I’ll see you later.’ He crammed his knit hat over his hair and threw on his jacket. ‘Bye.’
‘Bye,’ Peter echoed, and Sirius was out the window, hopping to the ledge below and climbing down the knotted rope ladder he and James had long since rigged. By the time he’d passed the window looking into one of the second floor storage rooms– quite startling a house-elf who was collecting a mop and cleaning soap– his hands were bricks of ice and his feet fumbled for the rope that slipped between his legs like a living snake. He dropped the last ten feet and landed awkwardly, letting out a squawk. For a long minute he crouched in the snow, unable to determine whether he’d turned his ankle.
A hand touched his shoulder. ‘Are you all right?’
It was Remus. Sirius stood. ‘What are you doing here?’
The younger boy was wrapped tightly against the wind, clutching his layers of fraying jumpers around him and hold his scarf– Sirius’s scarf– to his lower face. His bare hair danced crazily in the gusts of frost and drizzle.
‘You lied about studying,’ Sirius said.
The red that suffused Remus’s face could have come from the cold. ‘Good for you that I did. Do you need help getting back inside?’
He tested his weight on his ankle. ‘Inside is the place I escaped from, I’m not going back yet.’ Another bluster threw a fistful of snow flakes into his face and up his nose. ‘I– ew– well, come on then.’
Remus tagged along, his gait a graceless combination of skipping and sliding through what was, for him, knee-high drifts. ‘Where are we going?’
‘Quidditch pitch. I know a place where we’ll be out of the worst of this.’ He grabbed Remus in time to stop him falling on his arse. ‘Would you be more careful? What are you doing out here, anyway?’
‘You’ll get sick. Don’t complain to me about it when you’re dribbling snot.’
‘I wouldn’t dare.’
The grounds keeper, Femerius Dumfries, had been fighting a war on the Quidditch pitch since the winter of 1964 when he signed on to the Hogwarts staff. He had laid a very handsome sod over the field during the summer of that year, and had been horrified when a particularly bad season ruined it. Dumfries attended games with his hat twisting between his red-knuckled hands out of the anxiety that so many careless students would create a disaster for his beautiful grass. It was said that in 1969, Headmaster Dippet had finally given in to his grounds keeper’s harassment, and allowed the pitch to be spelled with a weather repellent. He had held firm, however, on one point, and refused a student repeller.
Thus it was that stepping onto the pitch was stepping into a wide sea of green. The wind did not ease, but at least it was easier to walk. ‘There,’ Sirius pointed. ‘The third tower.’
‘What about it?’
‘We can go under the side. We won’t feel the wind in there.’ But he hadn’t reckoned with the noise; the corduroy walls of the tent-like towers that lined the pitch hummed and roared. Remus seemed fascinated, uprooting one of the corner pegs and crawling under the hem. Sirius came after him, and they sat together in the cave-like square, waiting for their eyes to adjust to the darkness.
Remus said, ‘I’ve been baptized.’
Sirius rubbed his feet through his boots. ‘What’s baptized?’
‘In church.’ Remus sighed, and lay on his side, toying with the fringe of his scarf. ‘My mother married again this summer. He’s a Catholic.’
‘What’s a Catholic?’
‘I thought you were taking Muggle studies.’ Remus grinned. ‘Catholics believe in God. You have to have special permission to be one. Mam made us get baptized so she could get married to Samuel.’
‘Do you believe in God, then?’
‘No.’ Remus wrapped the scarf around his hands, blowing on them. ‘But I had to say I did.’
Sirius rubbed his ears. ‘You lie all the time, anyway.’
This brought Remus sitting up. ‘Why would you say that?’
Sirius laughed at him. ‘Don’t be insulting. You only tell the truth if you’re cornered.’
There was a short silence. Remus lay down again. ‘It’s my business, then, isn’t it.’
And suddenly Sirius didn’t want to fight. ‘Yeah. I guess.’
‘You were right, I wasn’t playing.’ Remus sat up again. ‘Do you want to see what I was doing?’
‘I dunno, do I?’ Sirius fingered the hacky sack he’d stuffed into his pocket. It really was too cold for that outside, and here in the tower there wasn’t really any room, especially with Remus with him. He sighed. ‘Yeah. Show me.’
Remus had them go back outside; they left the pitch, he leading and Sirius following at a small distance, watching the boy and wondering. Though they had been easier with each other since the Christmas before last, easy was a relative term. There was a distrust between them. Remus kept secrets and Sirius kept his suspicions to himself. A Slytherin was a Slytherin was a Slytherin, as it were.
‘We’re not allowed in the Forbidden Forest,’ Sirius said, moving to catch Remus up.
‘Rules have never stopped you before.’ Remus stopped walking to look up at him. ‘You can go back. I was going to come out here anyway, before I saw you.’
The Forest looked dead, covered with a thick layer of snow and standing more silent than ever it had before. Sirius had never been in the Forest before. It occurred to him to question why Remus had. He and James had always found plenty of trouble elsewhere.
‘I’m coming,’ he said.
They trekked in silence, and it seemed to Sirius that Remus was growing more excited, shaking off his habitual lethargies and all but frisking. There was a familiar pinch in his stomach, a pinch of nervousness that meant trouble was near; but this time, there was no answering thrill or desire to hurtle forward. This felt wrong.
‘Stop,’ Remus told him, touching him on the chest. ‘Look down.’
They were in a very small space between the trees, not even a proper clearing. The grass had shrivelled and died, cut off from sunlight by the ancient branches stretching above it. Sirius had stopped where he was told, and the toe of his boot had stopped just short of crushing a mushroom.
‘What am I supposed to be looking at?’ Sirius moved away from Remus’s hand.
‘It’s a faerie ring.’ Remus knelt, his fingers brushing close to the mushroom– there were several, their dead-looking grey heads poking large out of the fallow– but not touching. ‘We found it last week. I’ve been coming out almost every day, I–‘
‘Who is we? James? Peter?’
‘Me,’ said Malfoy, stepping out from behind a tree. ‘What’d you bring him here for?’ he snapped at Remus.
‘I just wanted him to see it.’
‘It’s our ring,’ Malfoy told Sirius, who was glaring at him with loathing. ‘You forget you ever saw it.’
‘I should have known this would have something to do with your Slytherin nonsense,’ Sirius grunted. ‘Faerie ring. If you want to eat whatever you find out here, that’s your business. It’ll probably turn you orange sooner than get you high.’
Remus stood. ‘You don’t believe me.’
‘I’m cold and wet and hungry and you dragged me all the way out here to show me mushrooms. No, I don’t believe you!’ Sirius pulled his jacket closer about him. ‘I’m going back.’
‘Good,’ Malfoy muttered.
Sirius cast him a scathing look, and stepped forward, aiming a kick at the closet fungus. Remus stopped him, grabbing his arm. ‘Don’t!’ he said sharply. ‘For goodness’ sake, just look!’ Still holding the other boy’s arm, he put one foot inside the circle.
The Forest vanished. They were in a field, and it was summer; the sun was brighter than Sirius had ever seen it. The smell of flowers was almost overwhelming. Remus turned to him, sweat already breaking out on his forehead in the unexpected heat.
‘You see, now,’ he said.
That was when he heard the music. Harps and fiddles and something else, something he’d never heard before– no, it was only singing, but no human had ever sung like that.
‘There they are.’ Remus pointed. ‘The faeries. Dancing.’
Dancing. Sirius felt light-headed. He took a step forward, and another, but Remus stopped him, grabbing him about the waist. ‘You can’t. We have to go.’
He didn’t want to go. How could Remus want to go? The singing was so beautiful.
And then the field was gone, and the cold hit him as if he’d been plunged into the frozen lake. Sirius staggered, barely taking in the satisfaction on Malfoy’s face, and the exhilaration on Remus’s.
‘Why did you make us leave?’ he whispered.
Remus had taken his foot out of the ring, and Sirius saw how close he had come to stepping inside it himself. Remus wiped his forehead, and released the Gryffindor.
‘You can’t go to the dance,’ he explained. Grey eyes searched his. ‘I know,’ Remus murmured. ‘I know how it breaks your heart not to, but you can’t.’
Malfoy broke the moment, startling Sirius. ‘It’s ours, Black. Don’t tell anyone what you saw.’
The daze was lifting. Sirius glanced down at the ring, then back to Malfoy. ‘You must have been eating them, if you think I’m going to listen to you.’
‘It’s time for supper,’ Remus interrupted. ‘Let’s go.’
Malfoy and Remus walked ahead of Sirius, talking quietly. Sirius lagged behind, frequently looking back. Already the memory of the field and the music was fading, and the experience felt surreal, like a– dream. A waking dream. There had been no field; how could there be a field in the middle of a forest? It had been– been an illusion. Malfoy was playing him for a fool, and Remus was going along with it. It hadn’t been real.
‘Shall we tell the others, then?’ Remus asked him. They stood in the corridor on the second floor: Remus would go down to the dungeons, and Sirius had two more flights to climb to reach his dormitory.
Sirius took off his hat and stuffed it into a pocket. ‘Tell them what?’ He caught a finger of his mittens in his teeth, and pulled it off his hand. ‘I didn’t see anything but a bunch of stupid mushrooms.’
The look of betrayal on Remus’s face was unexpectedly hard to face. Sirius turned his back, and left.
Severus reached for the bowl of mash, slopping a spoonful onto his plate, then doing the same for Remus. ‘You have to eat,’ he whispered.
Remus sighed, and picked up his fork, desultorily poking the potatoes. ‘Just tired.’
‘Balls.’ But Severus didn’t press it. He had lost his own appetite to worry: the first mid-term tests were only a few days away, and the discovery of the faerie ring the week before had distracted his study partner. Remus had even lost points in Defence Against the Dark Arts, his best class, for inattention.
Malfoy slid onto the bench across from them. ‘Beat it, Snape,’ he snapped.
Remus scrubbed his eyes. ‘Could we skip this for once?’
‘I said beat it.’ Malfoy pulled a folded parchment from inside his robe. ‘Lupin, look at this. I had the librarian hunt it up for me.’ About open it, Lucius gave Severus another nasty look. ‘Go stick your poxy nose in someone else’s business.’
‘Class in ten minutes,’ Remus interrupted. ‘I already told him about the ring, anyway.’
‘Fine.’ Malfoy flicked an obscene gesture at Severus, and turned away from him pointedly. He spread out the parchment over the table, facing Remus. ‘According to this, law says that the Forbidden Forest doesn’t actually belong to Hogwarts. I’ll have to look into it a little more, but I think it means that since we were the finders of the ring, technically we own it and Hogwarts can’t take it away from us.’
‘It’s not really something you can own, though, is it?’ Remus fooled with a piece of toast, dipping the corner in his marmalade and then in his mash. ‘Technically, it belongs to those people. The dancers, whoever they are.’
‘Only if they know it’s there.’
‘Why wouldn’t they?’ Severus asked. ‘If it goes both ways, maybe someone on their side have already discovered it. Maybe they put the ring there in the first place.’
‘Why would they do that, smartie?’ Lucius folded up his paper, obviously disappointed that Remus hadn’t been more enthusiastic. ‘Who the bloody hell wants to have a doorway to the Forbidden Forest?’
‘I have a free period later today,’ Remus said. ‘I’ll go the library and see what I can find. Maybe the ring has been there for a long time and someone wrote about it, even.’
Malfoy seemed to find that idea unappealing. ‘It’s ours,’ he repeated stubbornly.
Suddenly Remus smiled. ‘Yes,’ he said, laying down his toast and wiping his hands on his robe. ‘Whatever you say, Lucius.’
Severus disliked Remus when he got in this sort of bad way; or at least, he disliked the bad way making his friend act as if he had his head in the clouds. Remus didn’t even open his book in Potions, and when he added his grasshopper before the dried black cohosh, his cauldron emitted a foul-smelling steam that had the Gryffindors around them cracking crude jokes. Severus held his tongue out of loyalty, or at least until Remus nearly chopped off his own finger.
‘Will you wake up,’ he hissed, snatching the knife away. ‘This is on the test, and you can’t afford to fail that.’
‘I know. I’m sorry.’ Remus gazed at his cauldron. ‘Though I’m certain to fail today.’
Mollified, Severus magnanimously waved that away. ‘We can go over it during our free period.’
Remus made an effort to straighten, and took back his knife. ‘No, I promised Lucius to research the faerie ring. Never mind the potion. You know I’m no good at them anyway.’
‘Damnit, there will be other tests,’ Remus burst. ‘Stop being such a bother!’
Severus stared at him. Remus turned a furious red, and looked blindly at the table. ‘I’m so sorry. That was– uncalled for.’
‘A little less chatter, a little more concentration on your cauldrons, boys,’ Professor Turbute said, clapping Remus on the back. He glanced into Severus’s quietly bubbling potion, and beamed. ‘Excellent work. Right where it should be. Five points.’
For once, Severus took no pride in the praise of his work. Remus was not even bothering to hide the mess he had made; Turbute took a long look, and tugged at his paunch, but said only, ‘Kindly write me an essay on what you think went wrong, Mr Lupin. Due next class.’
‘Sev,’ Remus whispered, as soon as Turbute was out of earshot. ‘I’m really sorry.’
Gilbert Berdsley, a Gryffindor who sat at the table next to theirs, lobbed a handful of teasels at Remus. ‘Have the decency to run that out to the hallway, eh? It smells like you wet your pants! Which one of you darlings was it, eh?’
With a sigh, Remus raised his hand. ‘Professor? Can I please dump this out?’
‘Please,’ Turbute replied.
‘Tylwyth teg,’ said Remus.
Malfoy dropped his book back to the table. ‘Tully-what?’
‘Tul-oo-ith teg,’ Remus repeated slowly. ‘Elves. People under the hill.’
‘Fat lot of good that does us, then,’ Severus said, marking his page and closing his book. ‘Seeing as how those don’t exist.’
‘You’ve not seen them, yet. I bet they’re as real as Cornish pixies.’ Remus shrugged. ‘Aren’t you the one who says there’s always a gram of fact behind every fairy tale?’
‘That was before he heard it was Welsh biddy-nonsense.’ Lucius sighed and leaned back, fooling with his green necktie. ‘I’m not so sure I even care *what* they are. This is too much like school work and not enough like fun.’
‘You’re not even curious?’ Remus waved his hands. ‘You don’t even want to *know* what it is you saw? What we all saw!’
‘No,’ Lucius snapped. ‘I’m not curious. I thought it would be fun but it’s not, and to make it worse, I’m hungry and the library smells and we still have class.’
Remus’s mouth tightened, and he looked very deliberately back to his reading.
‘That cuts it, then.’ Lucius stood and shoved the books toward the opposite end of the table. ‘Let’s go. Come on, Remus.’
To his great annoyance, Remus had no problem saying “no” to his friends. ‘I’ll stay through lunch, I think. There’s a lot here and it might be helpful to know whom we’re dealing with.’
Lucius had never had an especial lot of patience, and Remus often tried the little he did have. He leaned over the table, slapping his hands on it. ‘I said, let’s go.’
Severus got to his feet. ‘I’ll save you some food,’ he said to his best friend, and nodded for Malfoy to follow. Scowling, Lucius did, glaring back over his shoulder.
‘Maybe we should tell a teacher about it,’ Severus hazarded.
‘Shut your poxy face. It’s a secret, you got that?’ Lucius shoved the other boy. ‘Unbelievable. You really are a nark.’
‘I don’t need your permission to be in on this,’ Severus retorted. ‘Remus said it was okay.’
‘How long do you think I’m going to keep letting him run the show?’ Lucius sneered. ‘*I’m* the one who found it, anyway. I could make it so neither of you could go back.’
‘How are you going to manage that? You can’t even stop yourself trying to run off in the field.’
‘I said shut it!’
‘I think you both should shut it.’ Sirius Black was standing in the hallway, talking to Candace Lumley, the Ravenclaw Prefect. He was grinning. ‘Look at you. It’s a regular hen party.’
‘Stuff it,’ Malfoy retorted. ‘Or have you already gotten her to do that? I suppose it’s not much of a wonder they never come back for more.’
‘Watch your mouth,’ Candace said. ‘I’ll take points away.’
‘Listen to her, Malfoy.’ James had come jogging down the corridor, accompanied by Ammar El-Abiad, the captain of his Quidditch team. Ammar cast Malfoy a disinterested look, and put his arm around Sirius’s shoulders. James was grinning.
Lucius Malfoy was smart enough to know when he was outnumbered. He put his chin in the air, and shrugged with affected nonchalance. ‘Should have realised you Gryffindors travelled in herds. I’ll just collect Lupin, then, and we’ll be off.’ He tried to catch Sirius’s eyes. ‘We were just heading outside,’ he added.
Severus glanced between them. It was no secret in Hogwarts that the famous Potter and Black duo bore no love for Malfoy. At least once a week, either the Gryffindors or Malfoy fell victim to some embarrassing hex or other. That James was kind to him and Sirius was not had more than once tested Severus’s cautious acceptance of Remus’s friends. And Malfoy was certainly not kind, but he was at least a proper Slytherin.
‘Reemy?’ James abandoned his antagonistic pose. ‘He’s in the library? I wanted to talk to him.’ He brushed past Severus and Malfoy and disappeared past the doors.
‘Still chasing faeries?’ Sirius sneered. ‘Some of us outgrow those kiddie fancies.’
‘Your life must be very empty, then,’ said Remus, coming out with James. Severus needed only a glance to see that Remus was still very angry with Sirius Black, for pretending not to have believed in the faerie ring. Remus then told his Housemates, ‘Don’t worry about saving me lunch. I’m going to the pitch. And Lucius–‘ He handed Malfoy a small, slender tome. ‘You might read up, if you can stay awake.’
Remus kicked idly at one of the bludgers. ‘I’m not angry, precisely. I just want him to tell the truth. He did see it, I know he did.’
James was sanding a spur out of his broom, his head bent over the work so that his eyes were as close to the wood as possible. ‘He swears all he saw were some mushrooms. He says you put your foot in and you and Malfoy pretended that something happened.’
Remus picked up the bludger, and sat beside James on the bench. ‘Come see it for yourself, then.’
James sighed and laid his broom across his lap. ‘To be honest, I don’t want to get in the middle of it.’
‘Oh, that’s fair, James!’ Remus threw the bludger, knocking over the lid of its carrying trunk, and upset himself into a fit of coughing. ‘Lucius was right... we should have kept it to ourselves.’
James Potter chewed his left thumbnail, examining his younger friend. After the first Christmas, it had seemed that things might finally go well between all of his friends. But it had lasted only a few months. Lucius Malfoy had taken a permanent interest in Remus Lupin, and while that had prompted James to declare peace, Sirius had not followed his example. A good four weeks of open warfare had resulted in grudging apologies, and James had felt that the tenuous truce needed only a little time to solidify. But summer had come too soon, and Sirius had started the year more entrenched in his attitudes than ever before.
Remus rubbed his eyes. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I didn’t mean to be rude.’
‘It’s okay,’ he replied. ‘You’re under a lot of stress.’
It seemed to him that Remus glanced at the sky, but before he could chase down the thought, Remus gave himself a shake, and said, ‘I have something for you.’ He grabbed his knapsack from the seat below him, and felt around in the back pocket. ‘I snuck down to Hogsmeade two days ago. I was looking for– well, that doesn’t matter. I found these quite by accident.’ He held up a thin, long tin box.
James took it. ‘What are they?’ He pried up the lid, and tilted the box into the light. He took out a pencil, and held it up.
‘They’re special,’ Remus said, scooting closer to him and taking a notebook from his pack. ‘Look at this.’ He took one of the pencils, and sketched a rough outline.
‘That’s the pitch,’ James guessed.
‘Right. Now let me see the lid.’ Remus traded him the pencil for it, and read the tiny black words printed inside on the tin. ‘I make up a password... ‘
‘How about “Go Gryffindors,”’ he laughed.
Remus grinned. ‘”Go Gryffindors.” And then I say the charm to set it.’ He fished his wand out of his bag, and lightly tapped the notebook. ‘Deliquescere extemplo.’
The thin streaks of pencil disappeared.
James let out a delighted gasp. ‘Look at that! That’s really solid!’
Remus wasn’t finished. ‘This is the best part. Look.’ He laid his wand down, and held the notebook in both hands. ‘I say the password– “Go Gryffindors”–‘
‘It’s back!’ James grabbed the notebook to examine it. ‘Remus, that’s so awesome!’
‘I figure it’s as good a way to hide the map as anything,’ the other boy replied, pleased with James’s reaction.
‘It sure is. Come back to the dorms, let’s show the others.’ James replaced the lid and leaned to pack up his Quidditch gear. ‘Ought to lift everyone’s spirits, what with the midterm exams coming up.’
‘It’s only lunch break, remember?’ Remus pulled a loose thread off his bag. ‘Still have class till supper.’
‘Come over tonight, then.’
Remus became absorbed in winding the thread around his finger, watching the tip turn red. ‘I can’t, tonight. But take them with you, and you show them.’
James sat. ‘Your mother ill again, is she?’ he asked cannily. He noted the flush that coloured Remus’s ears. ‘You know, for someone who lies as much as you do, you’re not very good at it.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘Was she ever really sick?’ James put his hand on Remus’s knee. ‘Do you really think I’d hate you for making things up? Remus, you’re my friend. I don’t care what excuse you give. I just worry.’
Remus pulled away. ‘I have to go, James. I’ll see you later.’ He threw his bag over his shoulder, and took off across the field.
‘Deliquescere extemplo,’ James said, and they watched the pencil lines disappear.
‘I like it,’ Sirius approved. ‘Where’d you find them?’
‘I didn’t, Remus did. At Hogsmeade, he didn’t mention where.’
‘I thought he was poor.’ Sirius took one of the pencils, examining the lead. ‘These must have been expensive.’
‘He’s been earning a little extra lately. I got him a job tutoring one of the girls in Hufflepuff. She’s a bit of a fancy for him, so she doesn’t mind passing him a little coin.’
‘Playing matchmaker? He’s only a wee babee.’
‘No younger than you when you entered the Great Hormone Rage. Only, you always claimed you were older.’ James replaced the pencils and the lid. ‘Do you think his mother is really ill?’
‘He told me she got married again over summer holiday.’ Sirius folded the experimental parchment into a paper plane, and launched it. ‘He got baptized and everything for it.’
‘If she were so bad off that he needs to go home every month to see her, it would be hard to meet a new bloke, wouldn’t it.’ James leaned back against the pillows of his bed. ‘What do you reckon is the real problem?’
‘He’s the sick one, isn’t he.’ Sirius fetched his hackey sack, and stood beside the bed, bouncing it on one foot. ‘I reckon he goes home to have mummy take care of him.’
James did not lightly betray his friends, and Remus had made it clear that prying was treachery of the worst sort. With a sigh, James let the subject drop.
Peter came in, wrapped in a dripping robe and holding a soaking book before him. ‘Hello,’ he said mournfully.
‘Ah, Petey, what’d you do now?’ Sirius asked, taking the book from him and dropping it before the stove. ‘Is that your Herbology text?’
‘Had an accident,’ Peter wheezed, falling into his bed. ‘Taking a nap now. Detention at seven.’
James and Sirius exchanged a long look. ‘I have a chart to make for Arithmancy, anyway,’ James said softly. ‘Ought to get going on that.’
‘Not bloody homework again. Am I the only Gryffindor who believes in freedom, anymore?’
‘You’re also the only one who has to bat his eyelashes at his professors to make passing marks, too.’ James pulled his books from his trunks. ‘Keep me company in the common room, then.’
Sirius had managed to settle into relative silence, and James worked slowly, biting his lower lip between his teeth. Six o’clock became seven, and Peter went dashing past, late to his detention, and then it became eight, and James finally sat back with a sigh, stretching the kinks out of his neck. ‘Blimey, but I’m sick of this.’
‘About time.’ Sirius launched to his feet. ‘I might have imploded if I’d had to sit there longer.’
Peter’s Herbology text had started to smell. James gingerly moved it to the stove farthest away from his bed, and climbed into the window seat with a blanket. It was a cloudy night, and he searched for the moon.
Sirius sat beside him, and suddenly pointed. ‘Look. It’s Lupin.’
James had to squint and remove his glasses, but sure enough, he recognised Remus’s hair, looking red in the light of his lantern and badly wanting for a trimming. For a moment, it seemed that Remus turned and looked directly up at him; but the moment passed, and James unconsciously relaxed.
‘You think he’s going to the Forest?’ he asked.
‘I thought he was going home. It’s his day, isn’t it?’
James ran through quick calculations on his fingers. ‘Been about a month, yeah. And he outright told me he couldn’t come over tonight.’
‘I can’t figure him out.’ Sirius turned his back to the window, and so did not see Remus stop at the edge of the strange new tree, the huge willow that James couldn’t remember having seen before last year. ‘I’m not so sure I even want to. He goes out to visit that stupid fairy tale of his and he’ll collapse on top of the bloody thing for pneumonia.’
James was quiet for a while, watching Remus blow out his lantern and disappear into the darkness. ‘He was never given to fancies like that. I wonder.’
‘Nothing. I just wonder.’
He awoke when strength wrapped around him and lifted him. His muzzle fell against a warm, bristly mane that, to his sensitive nose, smelled of smoke and apples and turkey... turkey served at dinner the night before. For a moment memories lapped each other. The odours confused him too– there was a heavy musk, his own scent, but he smelled humans, a man and woman. Blood. Strange blood, not his. A boy’s blood. When he opened swollen eyes, pain lanced them. Colours. He remembered them, but oh, they weren’t right, they weren’t right. The light burned.
Water brought him back to consciousness. That which held him laid him in the water, and the sudden warmth where he had been so cold was a shock that woke him too quickly. He struggled, flailing with his paws– hands– and water flooded his mouth and nose.
‘Shhh,’ the man whispered. A hand rubbed his back gently. ‘Shhh.’
The smells were fading, his senses longer so acute. He opened his eyes, and felt dim recognition of the faces that leaned over him. Headmaster. Dum... Dum... And the woman. She reminded him of flowers.
She was rubbing his feet and calves, returning feeling to them and helping him re-learn the shape of them. Their voices sounded so fuzzy as they told him how to walk, held him up and guided his steps. When he could stand on his own they dressed him in soft cotton somethings, and the lady brushed his hair. They fed him something that tasted like bitter leaves, and it made him very tired.
Like everyone else at Hogwarts School of Magical Education, Severus Snape believed that Remus left school every three weeks to visit his ailing mother. There had never been any reason to question that belief, and James Potter did not give the Slytherin any reason to suspect else. Satisfied that Snape had told the truth– so far as he knew it– James left the Slytherin common room, and joined Sirius and Peter in the hallway. He shook his head, and the three of them trudged up the stairs to the more populated levels.
‘If he didn’t leave the school last night,’ James brooded, ‘and he’s not in the Forest and he’s not in his room, where the bloody hell could he be?’
‘I think,’ Peter started– but he was cut off by Sirius.
‘He obviously doesn’t want us to know, does he? I think he’s just off having a sulk because you won’t believe him either. He’s probably having pretend tea with the Queen of the Elves right now.’
‘But maybe he’s already back from the Forest,’ Peter tried again.
‘Did anyone think to check the Library?’ James stuffed his hands into his pockets. ‘Bugger.’
‘Library doesn’t open til one on Saturdays.’
‘Hello!’ Peter jumped in front of them, waving his hand in the air. ‘I think I know where he is! Listen to me!’
James blinked down at him. ‘No need to shout, Petey.’
‘Sick people go to the infirmary,’ Peter told them, ignoring that. ‘Remus always goes to the infirmary when he comes back from his mother’s.’
‘How do you know that, eh?’ Sirius took Peter’s fleshy arm. ‘Are you sure?’
‘I am sure. He told me so once.’
James had not been aware of Remus and Peter ever having much to say to each other. ‘You’re absolutely sure he told you that?’
‘Do you want to find him or no?’
James glanced at Sirius. ‘Lead the way, then, Petey.’
Young Madame Pomfrey, the pretty new nurse hired on last year, expressed reservations about allowing a group of rambunctious boys into her domain. ‘I’ll have to ask Remus,’ she said, and held them at the door with a stern look that old Headmaster Dippet would have been hard-pressed to duplicate. Her heels rapped sharp as gunfire on the stone floor as she disappeared behind a curtain screen.
James wiped damp palms on the inside of his robe. He was aware of Peter and Sirius, but only dimly. It seemed to him that there was something he should be thinking of, a puzzle piece he should be completing the puzzle with. But it was beyond him. When Madame Pomfrey reappeared to beckon them, James ran to the bed.
Remus looked only very tired, rather than very ill, which seemed to confirm Sirius’s version of things. Dark circles made the grey of Remus’s irises seem almost purple, and Remus curled in his blankets like the small boy he was. He summoned a small smile for James, and Sirius and Peter who came up more slowly.
‘Hallo,’ he said. ‘Good morning.’
‘Didn’t go home this time?’ James asked.
Madame Pomfrey had not left. ‘Speed it along, boys. I won’t have you tiring my patient.’
Peter was the only one whose head had not automatically turned toward the voice of authority, and so he was the only one to see the relief in Remus’s expression. Naturally a nervous child, and often overmatched by his more out-going friends Sirius and James, Peter had learnt that holding his tongue nevertheless had its uses. He noticed the look, and filed it away to consider another day.
James hesitated, hoping the nurse would give them a little space. After a long minute’s frowning, she sighed and did indeed walk away, pointedly folding sheets only a few beds away. It would have to be enough. James took Remus’s hand, meaning to speak, and found the bandages.
Remus snatched his hand away. ‘I fell,’ he said, pulling the sleeve of his pajamas top down to hide the gauze. ‘You see, I–‘
‘In the Forest. No wonder, if you didn’t even bring your lantern in with you.’
Remus stared. ‘You...’
Sirius took up station on the other side of the bed. ‘We saw you go in last night. It would be worse than detention if you were caught. Or if you weren’t– you know what runs about there at night? They might never have found you.’
Remus licked chapped lips, avoiding James’s eyes. ‘You weren’t to know.’
‘Well, now we do.’ James chewed a fingernail. ‘Look, Reemy. Here’s the thing. If it means so much to you– I want to see it.’
‘See... see what?’
‘The faerie ring. I want you to show me the faerie ring, Remus. Us, that is.’ He paused, looking for some sign in the boy’s manner. ‘We believe you.’
‘Do you, then?’ Remus wrapped his arms around his chest, and now he seemed released from some great tension. He flicked a glance to Sirius. ‘I’m glad.’
Sirius looked away.
‘Will you take us then?’ James glimpsed Madame Pomfrey checking the water clock on her desk, and stood. ‘Tonight, if you’re feeling better?’
Remus said, ‘I will. Tonight. Thanks.’
Peter told him, ‘I have some chocolate frogs. I’ll bring some back to you, shall I? I’ve had the food here, and you’ll be right tired of soup by lunch.’
Remus smiled. ‘Thanks, Peter.’
Shooed out of the infirmary by a very insistent Madame Pomfrey, Sirius pushed the sleeves of his favourite jumper up his arms, and stuffed his hands into his pockets. ‘What’d you promise that for?’
‘The chocolate frogs?’ Peter’s eyes grew wide. ‘I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to.’
‘Not the frogs,’ Sirius snapped. ‘I don’t want to go see the damned mushrooms!’
‘I’m not having this argument,’ James returned. ‘He’s our friend and it’s our job to believe him if he says he comes from Mars and he’s made of cheese.’
‘That’s the moon, you idjit.’
‘Whatever. So you’ll come, and you’ll act like you see whatever he tells you to see. Same for you, Peter.’
Peter, startled, nodded earnestly.
‘Good,’ James said. ‘And that’s the end of it.’
Sneaking off the grounds after dinner was no hardship, not for experienced sneaks like the four of them. Remus led the way, shivering in his tatty old coat and rubbing his eyes for weariness. Peter kept up a high-pitched monologue, staring off at every tiny noise in the forest around them. Sirius, studiously ignoring all of them and stumping along with his chin against his chest, muttered to himself and threw dirty looks at the wet mulch that was slowly freezing his toes.
‘Here it is.’
It was the same place as before, crowded with the four of them so that they had to nearly lean against the surrounding trees to avoid stepping on the oddly glowing mushrooms.
‘Look at that,’ James said stoutly. ‘That’s right interesting, isn’t it, Petey?’
Remus sighed, and held out his hands. ‘James, take hold, and you too, Peter. Sirius, take my belt. Don’t anyone let go for any reason, any reason at all. Stand absolutely still.’
They obeyed, gathering round him. Sirius suffered a moment’s doubt as he wrapped his fingers around the worn leather at Remus’s waist; but he buried it. Remus would be humiliated when nothing happened, and then after a few days he’d find something else to make him happy, and all this would be over. Over and completely forgotten.
‘All right,’ Remus said, and stuck his foot into the centre of the ring.
The four boys disappeared, and a startled bird chittered angrily and flew from the clearing.
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