"Thought you'd be late for dinner," James said as the two of them sat down. Peter was blotchy pink, the way he looked right before he had to do anything really difficult in class, his look of fear. Remus saw his hands tremble. "We were going to send out a search."
"Us?" Remus said, and clapped James on the back. "We're fine. Tip-top."
"Visited the Dungeons, looking for a change of scenery," Peter added. His voice cracked a little bit. "Interesting trip."
"You'll have to tell us all about it," James replied. "We also need to figure out who else has spare time for the younger years--" and then Lily and Sirius sat down.
"I cannot believe your girlfriend, Potter," Sirius said. "She nearly took my head off in our study session."
Lily calmly started serving for everyone. Only then did Remus notice there was actually food in front of him. His thoughts had been going around and around in circles so much that he'd all but forgotten eating, drinking. There were too many other things on his mind. "It was supposed to be practice for the practical exam," she explained, patiently dishing up the mashed potatoes.
"Your girlfriend is a menace," Sirius said. "How's the escort service?"
James glared at him. "Very well, thank you," and then he sighed. "As I was going to say, it's working better than we'd imagined. Between Gus and me, we sorted out someone to herd all the lowerclassmen to and fro for the whole week. In truth, they were glad of it."
"They're scared," Lily replied, spooning out the bowl of carrots next. "The second years I was with last hour practically ran from the greenhouses back to their common rooms."
Remus immediately felt guilty. "Do you need any more volunteers?" and James nodded. Of course he did. Remus told him, "I have fifth and sixth free tomorrow."
"Have you considered asking the teachers?" Peter asked gingerly. Remus didn't miss the little tremble still in his hands. "After all, this is a little out of our--"
"They're busy, haven't you noticed?" James told him curtly. "We were asked to take care of it. They're all still looking for," and he looked at the tabletop. "Clues."
"Start with Novus spells and the Fallacis charm, then," Remus said suddenly. "Peter and I followed Snape just now, and he let it slip."
Sirius immediately turned around to look across the hall. Only a few Slytherin students were eating at the table. Remus thought for a moment. It had been a while since they'd seen that table even half-full. "You went on your own? With *Peter*?" Sirius asked. "Are you mental?"
"We were fine," Remus answered. "Lit hallways, watched our backs."
"Regardless," James interrupted, "I can't believe his fucking nerve. He actually told you that?"
"He was following some of the other Slytherins to the Dungeons," Remus answered. "I, well," and he looked sheepish. "I goaded him until he was mad enough to tell me. Seemed quite proud that he could finally let someone in on it, to be honest."
"It's sick," Lily said, looking completely disgusted. "If *only* we could catch them."
Remus still hadn't eaten a bite of food. He wasn't even hungry. Theresa and a friend came into the hall, after watching the first years sit down in a group together, and joined them. "I don't know what's worse," she said, low, "lying to them about the fact that they're perfectly safe, or having to check around every corner before we go around it in case there's something else horrific to see."
James stared at his plate. "It takes a while to set up the illusion," he said, "so I think it has to be done at night, when they'd have enough privacy." Remus saw Sirius sit up a little straighter; they'd nearly caught whoever it was in broad daylight, out at the lake - but no need for anyone else to know about it. Not quite yet.
Theresa's friend - Remus thought her name was Tracy, and he thought she was in Hufflepuff - was hovering over her shoulder. "Sit down, by all means," Lily said, belatedly. "Like the House tables mean a damn thing anymore."
Tracy sat. "Martha wants to talk to you two," she said, looking at James and Lily, "tomorrow night. She said eight thirty, Prefects' study. Full on meeting for the upper levels at nine." Tracy suddenly flushed. "I mean, she wanted to ask if that was all right. She knows you're the Head Boy and Girl, but--"
James cut her off. "We'll be there. Eight thirty. Everyone at nine. Do the teachers know the sixth and seventh years will be out of their common rooms that late?"
Theresa nodded. "Martha told her Head, she said she'd take care of it." Her plate was empty; she hadn't even gone for the food. "Besides," she added, twisting her hands around her napkin, "not all sixth and seventh years. Just Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Gryffindor."
Remus looked up and saw McGonagall standing in the archway, looking at them. Her face was as composed as ever, but she tapped her wristwatch, and raised an eyebrow. Remus glanced at his own watch, and saw it was nearly six thirty; they'd have two hours for her tutorial, if that. "I think we have to see a lady about a spell, chaps," he muttered, and then added, "and lady."
Lily stood up. "Eight thirty," she said, and everyone else stood up, too. "And I admit," she added, "the thought of any of the Slytherins up past nine has already depressed me."
Remus looked back at their corner of the table; there were their plates, untouched. Peter slotted himself between James and Sirius automatically, and his eyes darted around the room. Lily walked out without even a glance to anyone else; James had his arms crossed and stared at her back. Sirius started to follow Peter, but then looked back at Remus, and reached over to grab Remus's hand.
Remus was fairly sure that when Lily had said "*depressed*" what she really meant was "*scared*."
"This is unlikely," McGonagall said, "to come up on even the most difficult N.E.W.T." The five of them were standing in the center of her classroom, wands out and rather nervous. "Ideally," she continued, "we would do this with a Boggart. However, if I recall your Defense Against the Dark Arts classes in third year, instead of a Dementor we would be dealing with a headless corpse," and she looked at Sirius, "a giant slug," and she looked at Peter, "tarantulas," and she looked at Lily, "perhaps your family," and she levelled a much gentler gaze on James and finally Remus, as she finished, "and the moon. Therefore, we'll just have to make do. We'll try with a Boggart later."
"Professor," and Remus glanced to Sirius.
"What?" she asked impatiently, already extinguishing most of the candles in the classroom.
"Why are we doing this?" Remus asked. The unspoken question was clear; if the magic was not going to be on their exams, why, exactly, did she want them to know. In truth, it was half rhetorical, the answer obvious enough, at least the general answer - last week the Dementors made the front page of the news, having nearly caught two Aurors. Remus was hoping to get a little more concrete detail.
McGonagall gestured for the five of them to pull out their wands abruptly and gave every indication of not having heard him. But she did go over to the classroom door and close it firmly. As she locked the door with a wave of her wand, McGonagall murmured, "all in good time."
At breakfast, Remus looked over at the Hufflepuff table. He elbowed Sirius. "Look." A pretty girl with long red hair was crying disconsolately into her porridge. Sirius ignored him completely, didn't look up when James sat down beside him and threw parchment everywhere, didn't even look up at the catcalls from the table as Remus put an arm around his shoulders gently, kissing his neck. "Sirius," Remus said again.
"Do you think," Sirius answered him in a loud clear voice, "that there is *any* way to escape birthright?"
His angry tone carried halfway down the table, and several people looked up. James frowned, looking a little helpless. No matter what was going on, it was very odd to see Sirius in such a bad temper, especially in public. Several Gryffindors looked up in alarm.
"What is it?" James said.
As an answer, Sirius threw his copy of the Daily Prophet down into his porridge angrily, splashing juice all over the table, and then stalked out of the hall.
James and Remus both leaned over at the same time and saw the headline "Black Promoted to Undersecretary to the Ministry of Magic." Beside the article, Sirius's great-aunt and uncle were smiling into the camera smugly. Down the third column on the page, nearly buried under an article for home-protection charms, was a hasty article that said the Ministry had called off the investigation into the explosion in Hogsmeade last month and officially declared it an accident.
It gave Remus little satisfaction to crumple up the paper, tearing the photograph in half - but he did it anyway.
"Snape? What's happened to him?" Remus asked James on the way to the Transfiguration classroom. "He looked fine at dinner last night."
"It seems," James answered, "that Snape had an accident last night."
"Caught out of bed again?" Remus asked, unusually savage.
"You know, I believe he was," James replied, keeping his voice quiet. Several of the Slytherin seventh years were trooping up the stairway, headed what Remus knew was the wrong way to their class. Remus slowed down just enough so that he and James would reach the bottom of the stairs as they disappeared down the second floor hallway. "It's very odd," James said suddenly.
"What?" Remus was peering up the stairs, looking to make sure Lestrange and his friends were gone.
James shook his head. "I don't know." He mounted the steps, and Remus knew he had his hand on his wand unconsciously. "Normally, were Snape to take a fall down the stairs, I'd point to Sirius as the culprit."
"But as Sirius was with me last night--" Remus frowned. Something wasn't adding up.
"It's just odd," James said again. "Anyway, how is that going? You two seem overly--" and he searched for a word.
"Involved?" Remus opened the Charms classroom door for James, saving him from having to answer. It was a very good question, regardless. The whole tutorial, Remus found himself having to push rather forcefully to keep it - rather than panic over more dangerous issues - out of his mind.
It was easier when, coming out of Charms, they were snatched away by McGonagall to examine an illusion near the Whomping Willow. "No one came out here until break," she told them. "We think it's been there since this morning."
While James looked at the scene, walking around and asking McGonagall wooden questions, Remus simply started at the teenager. He was face-down in the dirt, so Remus couldn't properly see his eyes, but thin cuts ran all down his bare back. The mouth, from the side profile, was open in a terrific grimace. Remus couldn't be sure, but it looked like he'd been tortured, clawed, to death.
"Remus," James said suddenly, appearing at his elbow, "we have to get out of here."
"Yes," Remus muttered. He stared at the boy, at the dirt on his skin, the long, shallow cuts. They were jagged, more the kind an animal would make. Any time they had to cut something up in Potions, Remus knew the cuts to be long and even, not jagged. Claws, then, he decided, and felt sick.
"Remus," James said, and tugged on his arm.
The meeting went on for an hour, and James and Lily managed to lie convincingly for nearly that long. Remus had no doubt that they'd managed to keep up the charade with the Prefects the whole hour before, as well. Near the end of the meeting, when Gus told them that Flitwick had allowed two more Ravenclaw students to return home, Remus saw Lily's teeth begin to grind together. He doubted that anyone else really noticed, since Peter wasn't looking at anyone, and Sirius was staring at a crack in the wall beside him, apparently paying no attention whatsoever.
Sirius had been quiet and angry all day. The four of them knew that he was full of rage, and they could do nothing to deflate that rage. In all honesty, Remus knew that Sirius's anger was justified.
"We're doing the best we can," James told them, and then his face slipped, and Remus saw him lose it - just for a minute, but it happened. James didn't believe himself when he said, "we're going to be fine."