"Look," Peter said over porridge, shuddering as he passed the Daily Prophet over the table.
Sirius took it, wiping his mouth off with a cloth napkin. He skimmed the article, took in the hovering sign of the Dark Mark in the black and white clipping, and shoved his breakfast away. Next to him, Lily read the headline aloud: "South Wales Tea Shop Found in Ruins; No Survivors." Sirius looked over to the Slytherin table; hardly a face in sight anymore, and those few still dining in the Great Hall were closed-faced, tight-lipped. "Is there nothing they won't do?"
Sirius spoke up, stuffing the column out of sight into his bag. "Oh, there's plenty we purebloods don't do. Laundry, cooking. Manners."
"Not all--" Peter started to protest, but Lily glared across the table at him, and he subsided. "Sorry," he muttered.
Sirius laughed, short. "Why should you be sorry? Your family seems to be quite nice, Peter." He sighed. "No disappearances, no beheadings--"
"No class," said a smooth voice from behind him. Sirius didn't turn around; there was no point in getting into an argument with his cousin, not here when all he'd do was to endanger other people. No matter how much he wouldn't mind grievously injuring her and her friends, nothing good could come of it. Not today. "How do the Pettigrews get by?"
Lily started to rise; Sirius kept his head bowed over his bowl. "I--" and then Lily stopped, sitting back down again.
"It's good you know your place," Bellatrix murmured, and then Sirius heard footsteps on the flagstones. Lily's face, bright scarlet from anger, betrayed her disgust. Sirius turned his head a fraction of a second and saw the Auror, Moody, standing in a side doorway. He was clearly in Lily's line of vision, Sirius realized.
Moody looked at Sirius, then shook his head.
"I can't --" Peter started, but Lily cut him off.
"It's a good thing James wasn't here," she said, smiling weakly. "He would have had her head."
Sirius nodded, "he would, too. Cooked up for dinner."
"Hah!" Peter snorted. "He would have."
"He would have," Lily echoed, and kept looking over Sirius's shoulder. Moody was still standing, watching. He inclined his head, slightly. Lily swung her head around, to where Moody was pointing, and then, Sirius followed his gaze; "look," she murmured.
"It's a snake cast out of the nest," Sirius told her with venom. "Looks like he's got no friends at all."
Lily ignored the comment; no point in arguing right now. Snape slunk into the hall and sat down at the end of the Slytherin table. Spooning hot cereal into his own bowl, he ignored everyone, head low over his spoon, moving only to glance every once in a while at the few Slytherin seventh years still sitting in the Hall.
"Look," Lily said quietly, just to Sirius, "they're ignoring him."
"Them and the rest of the world, then," Sirius answered. "Think he's not involved?"
"I want to," Lily said, "but I can't. If he isn't involved," she said, "it's just because he's not invited." Sirius nodded; even from that quick glance, it was obvious. Snape wasn't looking down his table in anger or hate, or even disdain. It was envy, jealousy for the companionship of his peers that seemed so elusive.
"You know," Sirius said, "I never realized it in all the years we made his life unbearable, but absolutely no one except you ever stood up for him."
"You're right," Lily said, closed her eyes briefly. A ripple passed over her face, and then she said carefully, "Do you think the reason he's in hospital is because he told Remus what he did?" She chewed thoughtfully. "Punishment?"
Peter hunched over more. "It fits," he muttered, "though it's awful. He was just--"
"What?" Sirius said. "Forget it. They can't stand him any more than we can, look."
When Snape tried to say something across the table, the others got up and marched away. He was left sitting with twelve year olds. Lily sighed. "I feel sorry for him," she said.
Sirius was done with feeling sorry. Some people didn't deserve it.
"--so ask her," Sirius muttered.
James sighed. "What can I do?" he said to the two of them.
Sirius bit down a laugh. James was worried about he and Lily. Everything going on right now, and suddenly James was concerned that he and Lily wouldn't last the summer. "You're being daft," Sirius told him, and turned the page of his Runes textbook.
"Just get married already," Remus told him, irritably. Beside him, Sirius let out a little sigh, but kept reading intently. They had a thousand things to review before the Runes final, and it felt as though his head were stuffed full of puffy cotton.
James stared at them, rather pink. "Married? I don't--"
"Oh, come off it," Sirius said. "We've seen the floor show; you two are going to move in together." He put his feet upon Remus's rune dictionary. "Just ask the damned girl to marry you."
"Now see here," James said, face heated, "I don't know why you two feel qualified to give *me* advice. You've been dancing around each other for three years."
"Well, we're not getting married, Prongs," Sirius replied, "not that we'll ever get as gooey as you two are--"
"We're not *gooey*--"
"Shut up," Remus cut in calmly, "or I'll hex both of you silent." He stared at the page again. "Some of us have to work for our intelligence."
James subsided, face still deep pink. Sirius pulled closer to Remus's chair and started rubbing his neck, for once allowing Remus to read in peace. "Thank you," Remus said.
Sirius leaned over and closed his own book - deciding, like always, to trust his brain for the exam. They'd actually been studying for Runes, and it was a class that Sirius genuinely enjoyed at least fifty percent of the time, but nothing in Runes was going to help them figure out how to get rid of a Novus spell that was intermingled with a half-dozen other things, including some of the most complex - and vanishing - Transfigurations that Sirius had seen.
Remus in the mean time, had picked up the Daily Prophet instead, and he passed it over. The headline was about a Welsh town, where a family was found dead in their sleep. As Sirius tilted his head to read it, Remus murmured, "they went peacefully, at least."
Sirius snorted. "So says the Prophet." He started rubbing Remus's shoulders, which were tense and tight and wound up. "Who really knows."
James started playing with an enchanted lock pick, and Remus had closed his eyes, letting Sirius try to relieve some of the tension in his cramped muscles, when Sirius said, "I love you."
James dropped the lock pick, scooped it up again, gave them each a look in turn - and all but bolted from their corner of the Common Room.
"You could have," Remus told him quietly, "picked a better time to tell me."
"I know." Sirius dropped his arm. "Better late than never?"
"I meant," and Remus tossed his books away, "not when we both have a N.E.W.T. in the morning, and I haven't revised nearly enough yet."
"Oh," Sirius said, standing. He didn't know why, but the conversation suddenly felt like a failure, like some how he'd missed the vital question on the test and now he'd never make it up. Remus was looking at him, face quiet and polite as usual. "I'm sorry," Sirius mumbled. "You'd better study."
"Oh, you damned fool," and Remus grinned at him, gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "It's nearly one AM, we've been reading all night. Let's go to bed."
Sirius had a nightmare where he couldn't wipe the blood off his hands.
He tried and tried and tried and tried and tried, but it was sticky, like glue, and got under his fingernails and on his clothes and fell off his elbows in little gloppy chunks. It was like what he'd heard going down on a girl who was bleeding was like, not usual flowing blood, like water, but more like oil, slick and really sticky.
Sticky kept going through his head, like a mantra, almost like a prayer. Sticky. He wiped the blood onto his pants, and it got his knees wet; more seeped out through his fingernails and trickled down the cracks in his fingers, over his knuckles. It was cold, too, not warm blood, blood leaking as from someone already dead.
Sirius looked down at his feet, and they were already half-sunk in dry dirt, dry sand like when his parents took him to the coast of Greece when he was very small. Greece had been all the rage back then, all old statues and new villas. Sirius hadn't ever wanted to sleep inside, and one night he had snuck out, sleeping on the sand outside their villa, in sight of the waves.
In the dream, suddenly, he looked around, and there was the same beach, his legs sinking into the dry, dry sand. The blood on his hands dripped onto the beach, looked black, drops rolling in the dust like little beetles.
What was the worst part about the trip to Greece was the fear he'd felt, just as the sun was rising, that his mother was going to catch him out of bed. While it was dark out, everything had seemed like an adventure, new and exciting, and though he couldn't see anything in the blackness except the dark sand and the silver waves in the moonlight, it wasn't frightening. As the sun started lightening the sky to the east, however, it wasn't an adventure anymore; it was cold, and smelled like salt and seaweed, and, worst of all, it was Forbidden.
Sirius could see his mother just coming out of the back door of their villa, wand already outstretched just like when he'd been there the first time. He knew she'd be angry, angrier with him than at any other time. "At least I have one obedient son," she'd told him, right before punishment.
It was a dream, a nightmare. Sirius tried to unstick his legs, to pull himself out of the sand. If he could get to the water, he could maybe counteract the sluggish flow of blood with the stinging salt of the sea - but it was no good.
He woke up with a gasp, just as his mother's face was visible coming towards him, and the first shimmers of grey and pink showed on the eastern horizon. He rolled over and found Remus curled up in a ball; Sirius wrapped both his arms around him, stared up at the bed curtains of Remus's bed.
"Pretty obviously symbolic," Remus murmured sleepily, when Sirius told him the dream.
"I suppose," Sirius mumbled back.
Remus pulled the blanket around them both, and then sighed faintly, rolling onto his back. Sirius didn't relinquish his hold on Remus, on his waist, his chest. Eventually, Remus raised his arm, squinting at his watch in the deep dark. "What time is it?" he asked.
"I don't know," Sirius replied. "Left my watch in the toilets."
Remus yawned, stretched his toes out. "Let me up," he mumbled, "I'll check."
Sirius squeezed Remus's hand, feeling the warmth there, and then let go. Remus stood, pushing aside the blankets and curtains just enough to pad out of bed and to the window, to get some more light. Sirius could see James and Peter, resting peacefully; Remus peered out the window, and then gestured for Sirius to look.
The air outside their bed was cold, and Sirius shivered as he tiptoed over to their dorm room window. "What?" he whispered.
Remus pointed. Over by the Whomping Willow was a figure dressed in long black robes. From their vantage point, they could also see what the figure probably could not; another person watched him, staying hidden behind some bushes, long black hair and a familiar sag to his shoulders. Snape. Perhaps the hooded figure was aware of Snape and simply didn't care.
"Is that--" Remus whispered.
"I think so," Sirius replied. "What--" he asked, and then clammed up. From out of nowhere, half a dozen more figures appeared, simply not existing and then coming into being, standing in place in a rough semi-circle.
"Invisibility Cloaks," Remus muttered. "That's it. Where the hell did they all get them?"
Sirius shrugged, watching intently as the figures gathered - hooded, and he'd bet fifty Galleons masked - saying, "money buys anything, including a licence to do whatever you want. All the purebloods have enough of both. Wake James, maybe if we take brooms we can catch--"
But as Sirius said it, the figures disappeared, winking out of sight.
Sirius told the others after the Transfiguration written exam, because someone should have a chance to do well. Sirius hadn't been able to comprehend anything on his paper; it was all gibberish. The worst part was he'd probably get top marks. "All of them hooded," he muttered, "and all of them with cloaks. It had to be."
"The Willow," James said. "We'll keep an eye out."
"Shouldn't we, well, tell a teacher?" Peter asked, and ducked his head as Gus and Martha stormed up. "Aren't they more able to--"
"James," Martha said, "this is unforgivable. I don't know whether to be angry or afraid. We *have* to do something."
Lily looked at James the same moment James looked at Lily; Sirius shook his head slowly. They were sitting on the stone bench, waiting for Remus to finish with Professor Flitwick. Something about a last-minute study question. They used to tease Remus that he'd have fit in better in Ravenclaw, simply to get the other boy to agree to do things that even they wouldn't do. In fifth year, when Remus wouldn't help Sirius hang the 'Slytherin sucks' flag from West Tower, all he'd had to do was goad him with the taunt of 'Ravenclaw'.
"What did they do?" Peter squeaked. Sirius felt, rather than saw, Peter's foot trembling. He shrank down even further beside Sirius.
Martha rubbed her eyes. "Another child, this time a boy. In the courtyard near the Whomping Willow. There's a rumour going around in our houses that the first years will be next," she said. "All the Muggle-borns are afraid to even come out of their common rooms."
Gus added, "I had to excuse mine from classes this morning because they figure the only place safe is in the Tower."
Sirius swallowed as James said, "We'll take care of it, I promise," and then again when, as the two other Prefects left, James bit his lip. The question hanging in the balance wasn't whether they had to do something or not; the question was, what.
"I managed to--" Remus started, striding up, and then clamped his lips shut as he came to a halt. "Was there." He stopped. "Oh," he said.
Sirius felt Peter's foot shaking; he stared at James and Lily holding hands. The courtyard was deserted. "All right," he said. "I know just what to do. Come on, Ravenclaw," he said to Remus, "let's head to Hogsmeade. We've just enough time before your bedtime."
"I'm not--" Remus protested, but Sirius ignored him, grabbed his hand to yank him into the castle. If they hurried, they could manage to get to the joke shop in the village and back again before twilight, before anyone noticed they were gone. The full moon had been bad this month, with only Sirius with him. "What do you intend?" Remus asked, while they trotted to the closest secret passage out of the castle.
"I was thinking some fireworks," Sirius replied. "Not too loud, just bright enough to light the sky up for a while. Blue and red and yellow, maybe."
"Hmm," Remus answered. They wouldn't buy green, just because seeing anything green in the sky was bound to make people even more nervous. Sirius paused beside the one-eyed witch, and glanced around to make sure no one would see them. Sadly, he didn't have to worry - the corridor was painfully deserted.