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i. Like A Rolling Stone

“I think Pomfrey knows about the chocolates,” James said, manoeuvring his way to the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall.

It was a frosty January morning; the school’s populace had not yet adjusted to classes after the Christmas holiday, and the hall was full of bleary, sleep-drawn faces. He and Sirius were nothing short of perky — the sort of wired that came from a night of running around the grounds in their Animagus forms, and would lead to an early crash that evening. 

“Nah, how could she?” Sirius said as he snagged a slice of toast from a platter. 

“I don’t know, maybe because Moony slept better than he ever has—” James paused, lowered his voice, and adjusted course. “Better than he ever has when he’s ill.”

Remus was, in fact, still asleep. That was why the boys had left only Peter to keep him company; the profoundly important job of retrieving breakfast was a task for two, they’d agreed. It helped too that James could keep an eye on Sirius this way. He thought Peter’s worries were by and large unfounded — Sirius was in a great mood right now, after all.

But the last time their friend had kept things to himself, Snape had ended up at the Whomping Willow. James did not anticipate a repeat occurrence, but he supposed sticking close to his best mate wasn’t much of an imposition anyway.

“What’s it matter?” Sirius shrugged. “It’s not like it hurts him.”

“Try telling her that.” Never mind that there was no treatment for Remus’s condition; Pomfrey insisted on monitoring just about everything he did in the days preceding and succeeding the full moon. Technically speaking, Remus was supposed to be eating some horrible gruel for breakfast. James would rather not raise her suspicions.

“I will if she asks,” Sirius said, grinning.

The sixth-year girls were all at breakfast save for Lily. Mary waved at the boys, and they waved back. The post had not yet arrived. James straddled the bench and got a slice of toast himself. Dumbledore wasn’t at breakfast, he noted, and neither were the Aurors on the Hogsmeade case.

There were three, as it turned out — Hartwick, the lead investigator, a stout, short woman with a sun-weathered face and close-cropped silver hair, Podmore, and Shacklebolt, a trainee. James vaguely remembered him as he had been at Hogwarts, a tall, reedy Ravenclaw. Auror training had turned him broad-shouldered, but he still had a good-humoured look about him. James had mentally filed him away as a safe Auror to get in trouble around, along with Frank and Marlene and perhaps Alice. But there was no sign of him.

Edgar Bones was eating at the teachers’ table, deep in conversation with Sprout; Alice was walking up and down the hall, her gaze flicking over the students. James locked eyes with her and waved his toast. She smiled, ever so slightly, in return.

“Finally!” Sirius stood up as the Great Hall was filled with the rustling and hooting of arriving owls. His cheer soon faded; an envelope dropped onto the table in front of him. James could read the return address, scrawled with obvious impatience. It was from Walburga Black.

To his surprise, Sirius pushed the letter his way. “Would you open it?” He looked impassive on the surface, but James could see the rigid tension in his shoulders. He was relieved Sirius had asked; he wouldn’t have thought to offer it, but right away it seemed like the obvious, correct thing to do.

James tore open the envelope. The only thing inside was a photograph; it took him a moment to process what he was seeing. It was moving, a magical photograph of a cat, hanging by its tail. He flinched and dropped the photo as he realised the cat was dead. 

“What?” Sirius snatched up the fallen photo before James could stop him. There was a note on the back, but James did not get a close enough look at it. Sirius flipped the photo over. James heard his sharp inhale. The perfectly blank expression he wore cracked at last; he was moving a heartbeat later, making for the doors. 

James caught him by the shoulder. “What’s going on?” he asked, his voice an undertone.

Sirius shook him off. “Forget it. I need to talk to Regulus.”

James arched an eyebrow. He didn’t think the brothers would end up talking, but he decided not to say so. Remus or Peter might have tried to stop their friend; not James. Instead he dropped his half-finished toast onto a plate and dusted crumbs off his hands. “Come on, then. I’ll come with you.”

“I need to do this alone.”

There were a hundred things James could say. For one, it was always good to have backup. For another, if Sirius was caught doing anything to his brother, he risked expulsion. But his friend seemed quite beyond logic.

“No, you don’t,” James said simply. “We can drop off breakfast and go find him before Defence.”

“There’s no time,” Sirius ground out. 

“We’ll make time.” He reached in his pocket for the Marauder’s Map, only to come up short. He realised where it was at the same time Sirius’s hand went to his own pocket. “Padfoot—”

“Don’t come after me,” he said, and he was off like a shot. 

Icon of a quill drawing a line

They were just two dots on a map. Two branches on a tapestry. Sirius watched himself get closer and closer to Regulus Black, on the third floor corridor, and felt as though someone else was in his body. Someone else was pushing Regulus up against a wall, holding the photo up to his face; someone else felt the hot curl of anger and disgust and grief when Regulus closed his eyes, cringing away from the picture as if it physically hurt him. 

“Look at it!” Sirius barked. “You saw it happen, didn’t you? Enjoyed yourself?”

Regulus pushed him off. “Don’t be thick—”

“You can’t fake it like you always do. Pretending to be innocent, not as fucked up as your Dark magic loving friends—” The words on the back of the picture made him feel just as sick as the image itself. Your brother helped

As a rule Sirius did not trust his mother. She lied, she manipulated, she taunted; she could do anything to evoke the right reaction. But this had the ring of truth. He could see it in the sick resignation currently warring with defiance in his brother’s expression. 

No. Not his brother, just like she was not his mother. They were nothing to him anymore, and he to them. 

“You never could think for yourself,” Sirius went on. “You always were her lackey—”

The moment Regulus snapped was clear as day; the very air seemed to change. His shuttered, sickened expression gave way to fury. 

“I am her son!” Regulus spat. “You never were. I don’t owe you a damn thing. You’ll be sorry, sucking up to blood traitors and Mudbloods and nobodies — your precious Potter — The company you keep is disgusting. Evans, Macdonald — she deserved what Mulciber and Avery did to her—”

Sirius thought he’d never been so angry in his life. His blood hummed with it. Regulus was a coward after all; he always had been. Sirius realised this in the same breath as he vowed never to be like him. He could never sit back, take the path of least resistance. He had to fight.

“Shut your mouth,” he said. “You’re a worthless sack of shit, Regulus. Lily Evans could duel you in her sleep.”

And Regulus was reaching for his pocket, withdrawing his wand. Pointing it right at him. Given free choice, what would he do? If they hadn’t been at school, if there would be no consequences whatsoever for his actions? Sirius wondered, for a brief moment, if he was going to die. The thought was gone in an instant. 

Sectum—”

Before Regulus could get the rest of the spell out, Sirius had punched him square in the jaw. His wand clattered to the floor. He pressed a hand to his face, eyes wide.

“Learned some new tricks in your little club, did you?” Sirius advanced on him once more. “Do you even know what it does, or do you just do whatever Rosier tells you with your eyes shut?”

Regulus stiffened. “I know what it does! It’s a curse, Sectumsempra, and it’s—”

“Pick up your wand and do it then!” Sirius roared, snatching it up himself and shoving it into Regulus’s hand. He jabbed the tip into his own throat, hard enough to make his eyes water. Regulus offered no resistance, but held the wand steady. “Go on! Make your Death Eater buddies proud, if you’ve got the balls—”

Sirius cut himself off, seeing something harden in Regulus’s gaze. He knew at once that he had gone too far. Wouldn’t it be funny, if Regulus proved himself strong enough to stand up for something by killing him, right there and then? His pulse was pounding in his ears. He was going to die. He was going to die. He was going to—

Suddenly they were pushed apart by an invisible force. Sirius’s back slammed into the opposite wall. He was so surprised that he did not immediately look around for the source of the spell; he merely stood there, winded, still staring at Regulus, whose surprised expression mirrored his. It was James, he thought, it had to be. Map or not, his friend had followed him after all. 

“Don’t you have class to get to?”

It was not James. It was Professor Thorpe, and she had directed this question at Regulus, who scowled in response. He mumbled a vague answer.

“Then you’d best get to it.”

He didn’t need to be told twice; Regulus scurried off. Sirius pushed off from the wall, hands in his pockets. 

“I’m not late to your class yet,” he said.

Thorpe trained her steely gaze upon him, lips thinning into a grim line. “Not yet,” she agreed. 

“Then I should be on my way.” 

Sirius didn’t need a telling-off. His throat was still tight with anger; he didn’t trust himself not to argue, and the last thing he ought to do was argue with a teacher. In fact, the first thing he ought to do was apologise. But he couldn’t. He spun around and began walking away.

“Just a moment.”

Sirius froze but did not turn.

“No detentions for you since last February.” Her tone was perfectly flat, stating a fact and nothing more. “That’s got to be a personal record.”

“Just give me my punishment, Professor.” He ignored the queasy feeling in his stomach, both at the memory of last February and at the threat of detention.

“You’re on your last chance.” She was standing next to him, not looking at him. “That’s no secret among the teachers, Black. Brawling in the corridors seems a good deal more serious than starting a food fight.”

Sirius said nothing. He found he was braced for her next words, ready for the blow to fall.

Thorpe rocked back on her heels and sighed. “We understand each other. Let’s not call it detention. But I expect to see you at Duelling Club, setting a good example for your peers.”

“It’s already mandatory,” Sirius said, breaking his own resolve to stay silent. “I read the notice.”

“I didn’t see the setting a good example part on the notice,” Thorpe said dryly. She shook her sleeve away from her wrist, checked her watch, and nodded to herself. “Well. Get to class before I do.”

“I — yeah.” Was some sort of thanks in order? Sirius wondered how many last chances one person deserved. One person, who wasn’t perfect — wasn’t even particularly good, most of the time. “Yeah, I won’t be late.”

They started in opposite directions, then paused again.

“The classroom’s this way,” said Thorpe, tilting her head.

Sirius coughed, racking his brain for an explanation that didn’t involve the secret staircase he was most definitely headed for. “Forgot something in Gryffindor Tower,” he said.

“Huh,” was all Thorpe said in response. She knelt to pick something up — the photo, Sirius realised, and his stomach turned once more. “This yours?”

“No. I don’t — you can get rid of it.”

She had her wand out in an instant, and the photo was on fire the next moment. There was no ash left behind. It could as well have been a figment of his imagination.

“I’m not a pity case,” Sirius said, finding his voice after a long silence.

Thorpe gave an aggrieved sigh. “You now have six minutes to get to my class, Black.” And then she was striding off. Sirius left too, without a backward glance. He arrived at the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom four minutes later, sliding into the empty seat beside James.

Peter passed him his bookbag. “You’re welcome,” he said in an undertone. Sirius gave him a faint smile just as Thorpe strode in, calling out instructions.

As the class’s murmured conversation faded to the rustle of quills and parchment, Sirius could feel James’s gaze on him.

“What?” he whispered.

James shook his head. “Nothing.”

He understood that James had not come after him — had listened to him — and he also understood the subtext of it. Fine, but this is the last time

He knew how to make chances count. 

 


ii. A Brief Spin of the Hogwarts Rumour Mill, earlier that morning

“They made Duelling Club mandatory?”

Mary, Germaine, and Dorcas stood in the Entrance Hall, squinting at a notice pinned there. This outburst, coming from Mary, drew the stares of several onlookers.

“Well, not mandatory for everyone,” said Germaine, frowning. “Sixth and seventh years only.”

Mary gave her a look. “Seeing as how we’re sixth years, Germaine, that’s the bit I care about. It’s basically an extra class now! They’re testing us on it in Charms and Defence Against the Dark Arts, see? Oh, I hate practical magic.”

Doe was none too pleased at this prospect either, but she seized both her friends by the elbows and hauled them into breakfast. “I wonder if it’s because of the murders — it has to be, right?” She cast a glance at the teachers’ table; Dumbledore was gone, and so were the Hogsmeade investigators.

“Can they do that? Make us do self-defence?” Germaine poured herself pumpkin juice and slurped a mouthful. “I’d imagine some parents aren’t too pleased. Like, the sort of parents who know an awful lot about the Dark Mark.” She looked pointedly at the Slytherin table.

“Maybe Crouch will take credit. Preventative protection, isn’t it?” 

“Why aren’t you over the moon? You spent all September complaining about people too thick to realise the importance of Defence class,” observed Mary.

“I do think it’s important!” Dorcas said. “But this way I have to compete with everyone for the Aurors’ attention.” She sighed, her shoulders slumping at the very thought. “How am I supposed to impress them?”

“You’ll impress them just fine.” Germaine squeezed her shoulder. “You impress everyone. I mean, you’re top of our Defence class anyway—”

“But not Charms, and there’ll be duelling material in Charms class too—” 

Doe rubbed at her temples. She could not give herself a headache this early in the morning, not when Defence was their first class of the day. If only the Aurors could have come to give out career advice! She felt terribly childish and selfish for even thinking it. Of course everything would be better if two people hadn’t died and she could pick Frank Longbottom’s brain all day. 

“Change the subject, quick, before she spirals,” Mary said.

“Be nice,” Germaine shot back. “But really, we do have to talk about the elephant in the room. Or, the elephant not in the room.” At her friends’ confused expressions, she made a noise of impatience. “The Lily not in the room?”

Doe frowned, sitting up once more. “She told me to let her sleep in.”

“Big mistake,” Mary said. “Now she’ll be tripping over herself trying to get ready on time.”

“She looked so tired!” Doe protested. “Honestly, it’s like she didn’t rest at all over the holiday — do you think everything’s all right with her?”

“I can’t think what wouldn’t be all right,” Germaine began. “But then again, some problems are easily hidden.”

Doe felt another burst of remorse. She still couldn’t quite believe they’d gone so long unaware of Germaine’s troubles at home. She’d always done her best to be a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand and a welcoming embrace. Was she falling short of that, somehow, with her closest friends? But it had taken a spat with Mary for her to explain something as minor as her romantic frustrations. Maybe they could all do better. She only hoped it wouldn’t take something big and painful again for them to realise it.

“We should ask her,” Doe said. “Point-blank, I mean.”

“Dreamboat Dex isn’t at breakfast either,” Mary said. She was squinting over at the Hufflepuff table; Germaine and Doe followed suit.

“I think you’re right,” Germaine said, after a few minutes of squinting.

“You don’t think they’re together, like, in bed?” Dorcas said, her voice a squeak on the last word.

Mary gave her a surprised look. “Well, I didn’t earlier, but now I’m considering it.”

“Yeah, right. If Lily’s getting ten extra minutes of sleep in the morning, she’s spending it sleeping.” Germaine turned back to her breakfast, having dismissed this possibility out of hand.

“Well, maybe,” said Mary, looking unconvinced.

Doe sighed. “Don’t say something awkward to her, Mare.”

“What’s that supposed to mean!”

“Oh, you know what I mean!” She searched the Hufflepuff table for something new to talk about, and was quite quickly rewarded. “How about Cecily and Chris, right?”

Mary snorted. “Yeah, that’s not going to last.”

“Why not?” said Germaine.

“Because Florence is in love with him, obviously. I don’t know how Cecily doesn’t know yet.” 

“Didn’t you say Florence was kissing Michael Meadowes at King’s Cross?” 

Doe had fallen silent, watching this exchange with amusement. 

“Well—” Mary’s eyes went wide. “Florence is using Michael to make Chris jealous!” She said this in the manner of someone making a great discovery. 

“Oh, don’t speculate,” Doe said, laughing at Mary’s stunned expression. 

“You brought it up! You should tell your friend, he should know he’s being used.”

Dorcas rolled her eyes at the special weight Mary gave the word friend. Before she could reply, though, Germaine said sourly, “Yeah, no one likes being used.”

“What’s that about?” Mary said, snapping to attention.

Doe turned to Germaine too, searching her expression for the root of her bitterness. But there was none — none that she could identify. If she wants to tell us she will, Doe reminded herself.

“Nothing,” Germaine said, true to form. She had gone back to looking at the other tables; Doe thought she was looking for something else to talk about too. “I don’t think Doc and Marissa are going together, Mare.”

Mary hushed her loudly just as Sara sat down.

“Marissa?” Sara repeated, looking from Mary to Germaine. Her eyes were alight with excitement. “I heard she took a bloke home from Evan’s.”

“She took half the crowd home from Evan’s, technically speaking,” said Germaine.

Sara ignored this. “Well, it can’t have been Doc Dearborn, if that’s what you were thinking.”

“How do you figure that?” said Doe, her eyebrows arched in what she hoped was polite interest.

It was Mary who answered. “Because Doc is Evan’s friend, and he stayed at his place for the night.”

“Oh,” Doe said mildly.

“Oh!” said Germaine, as gleefully as if she fancied Doc herself. 

Sara looked between them, confusion colouring her smile. “I’m missing something, aren’t I?”

“Nothing,” Mary assured her. “Besides, we shouldn’t speculate. Oh, morning, James, Sirius.”

 


iii. For Enemies

Severus Snape far preferred silence when in company. There were few exceptions to this rule. Well, there was one exception to this rule. 

Had been. There had been one exception to this rule, and she was no longer the exception. That was how it was going to be, from now on. Anyway, she wouldn’t have wanted to talk to him, if it were just them, walking through the castle corridors like they used to.

Or, no, that wasn’t true. She would be interrogating him about something or the other. That was the new state of things, wasn’t it? He gritted his teeth, and pushed the thought away. Luckily Mulciber was prattling on about something or the other — the latest in a long list of gripes.

Usually Mulciber had easy solutions to his own problems, and to others’: magic, preferably violent. A chatty first year in the way? Hex. Filch’s bloody cat snooping where she shouldn’t be? Hex. He didn’t always carry out these solutions, but Severus thought it was only a matter of time before he did so routinely. 

Once, when he and Lily had argued over some stupid thing, in fifth year — long before the day by the Lake — Severus had returned to the Slytherin common room in a foul mood. 

“Why are you so grim?” Thalia had asked, scowling at him like his temper offended her.

“His Mudblood friend,” Avery said offhandedly. “Why else? She angry at you again, Snape?”

Severus glowered at him, making no response. He supposed that was an accurate description of how things had ended. But Lily would cool off and apologise. She always did. 

“If you ask me, you ought to get around to dumping her.” Thalia’s eyes glittered with malice.

“If you ask me, you can just make it so she’s not angry at you anymore,” said Mulciber, rolling his eyes as if the very suggestion bored him.

That had stopped Severus short. “Make — how?”

Mulciber had exchanged a glance with Avery and laughed. “Don’t be thick, Snape. You know how.”

“I’d be expelled,” Severus pointed out.

Another laugh. “Not if you don’t get caught,” Avery said. 

He hadn’t, of course. Tried to compel Lily to do anything. But he knew they thought less of him for it. They had all practised at least one of the Unforgivables already — Rosier, Mulciber, and Avery, that was; Thalia called them inelegant.

Severus was inclined to agree. But she had the family pedigree to render her opinion on the matter irrelevant. Her elder brother had already joined up. He, Severus, was the one being tested, constantly.

He was pulled out of the memory by Mulciber’s rising voice.

“—coming to Ravenclaw Tower on his summons, like he gives us orders—”

Severus realised he’d been silent too long. Any longer and Mulciber would be shouting, unchecked, and then half of Hogwarts would hear what they got up to. 

“Rosier gets the owls. If you have an issue, you can take it up with him directly,” Severus said in an undertone.

Mulciber gave him a poisonous look. “The owls don’t come from him.”

“The owls do come from Rosier’s brother.”

“Just because Marius is—”

“He said this one is important,” Severus interrupted. “A proper one. So we’ll only know the truth if we go find out.”

They had arrived at the eagle door knocker that led to the Ravenclaw common room. Mulciber groaned at the sight of it.

“I fucking hate this. Rosier gets off on it, putting us through a test just so we can hear what his brother’s saying—”

“Rosier gets off on it just as much as Helena Ravenclaw, I imagine.” 

Severus knocked, and the eagle said, “If every part of a ship is replaced, does it remain the same ship?”

Fuck,” Mulciber said, aiming a kick at the wall. “Merlin. Who cares about ships?”

“Shut up and let me think how to phrase this,” Severus said, finally snapping. He frowned at the knocker, and had just opened his mouth to respond when—

“I’m just as much myself for all the cells I’ve lost and regrown,” said a voice from behind them.

The witch who’d spoken was short and curly-haired, obviously young. She seemed oblivious to the glower on Mulciber’s face. The door swung open at her answer. Severus felt, despite himself, faintly impressed. The two Slytherins followed the girl inside.

“What’s a cell?” hissed Mulciber, eyeing the girl with suspicion.

“It’s a Muggle thing,” said Severus, distracted. He was searching the common room for Rosier; it took him a moment to realise Mulciber had his wand out. “What’s wrong with you? Are you going to hex her in front of a horde of Ravenclaws?”

“She won’t know if she’s been Imperiused.”

Severus felt cold. Had Mulciber been thinking of the same conversation, from a year ago? No, that was unlikely. Odds were the other boy just had his mind on the Imperius Curse, like always. 

“And what exactly are you going to make her do?”

Mulciber stowed his wand away, but his smirk remained. “You’re spineless, Snape.” 

He said this so casually that Severus’s blood boiled. What did Mulciber know? He was a curse-happy sociopath. He didn’t know anything about subtlety or caution or patience. He kept silent, though, following Mulciber to where Rosier sat in the corner of the room. Avery and Sebastian Selwyn were in chairs beside him, each looking almost comically serious. 

“Finally,” Rosier drawled. 

Mulciber flopped into a seat. “No Rowle and Black?”

Rosier twitched; he did not like to be questioned. “They’re young.”

“Selwyn’s young,” Severus pointed out. 

Rosier’s lips thinned. “If you’ll let me get on with it.”

Severus sat down and said no more. 

Rosier leaned forward, a letter clutched in his fist. There was a cold fire in his gaze, a fire Severus was normally unimpressed by but now found himself oddly drawn to. 

“They have a job for us. A real one. They need people inside the castle.”

“To do what?” Severus said.

Rosier cracked a humourless smile. “You don’t back out after this. Any of you.”

Selwyn was already nodding. Mulciber was rolling his eyes like the statement didn’t merit an answer. After a beat of hesitation, Avery was murmuring acknowledgment too. All four of them looked at Severus. He himself did not feel any climactic moment of choice. His answer was as obvious as the others’.

“Tell us what they want us to do,” said Severus.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

Peter, James, and Sirius had a free period first thing in the afternoon. As they trooped back to the Hospital Wing, where Remus still was, the inane chatter of lunch gave way to silence. It was their first opportunity to discuss what had happened after breakfast.

James had filled in Peter and Remus on Walburga’s horrible owl, but Sirius had carefully avoided mentioning his confrontation with Regulus — or how Thorpe had been lenient with him. He’d thought his foul mood was fading, but perhaps that had simply been because of the distraction classes provided. Now, alone with his thoughts, the memory of the photo swam before his mind’s eye.

No. Not alone. When they reached the Hospital Wing Remus was sitting upright, wearing a wan smile.

“Snuck more of the chocolate?” James said in an undertone, a grin spreading across his face.

“Only a little. I don’t want Pomfrey to worry.”

The matron was nowhere in sight; the boys clustered around Remus’s bed, occupying their usual positions without discussion. Uncharacteristic silence fell.

“What did Regulus say?” Remus said finally. His voice was still hoarse from the night before; Sirius almost winced to hear it.

“A load of shit,” muttered Sirius. Then he remembered that he did have interesting news — news he was more comfortable discussing. “He let slip one of the spells his little Dark Arts study group have been using, though.” 

Remus and Peter frowned; James sat up straighter. “You didn’t say. Did he—”

“He didn’t get to use it. So I’ve got no idea what it does.”

“Oh.”

Something white and soft came flying at him, hitting him in the face. “What the—” Sirius just managed to bat the pillow away. “What the fuck?”

“Sorry,” said Peter, flushing a bright red. “I thought you’d catch it — you can try it on the pillow.”

Sirius rolled his eyes. “What if it doesn’t work? What if it needs to be cast on a living thing?” He thought of the night they had found the Slytherins casting spells on little animals; the memory of their shrill cries twisted his mouth into a grimace.

“Then we’ll know that, at least,” Remus said.

“You don’t have to,” said James, the distaste clear on his face. “It doesn’t bloody matter what they do — it’s not like we’re going to use their spells against them.” 

Sirius saw his point, but he thought he had to know. He had to be able to properly face what Regulus could do, what any of them could do. He stood and set the pillow down on the bed opposite Remus’s, across the aisle — a safe distance, he hoped. He glanced at Pomfrey’s office last of all.

“She’s out,” Remus said. “Don’t worry.”

“Right.” Sirius cleared his throat and faced the pillow. He could feel his friends staring at him. He raised his wand, mimicking what little he could remember of the slashing movement Regulus had used, and said, “Sectumsempra.”

The pillow ripped right in half; the sound of it was deafening in the silent infirmary. A few feathers floated to the floor. Sirius’s heart was stuck somewhere in his throat. He remembered the pressure of Regulus’s wand against his neck. He had not wanted to die; he did not want to die. How close had he really been to being rent open, just like the pillow?

“Well,” said Remus with a lightness that was not at all reflected in his wary expression, “I suppose we know what it does.”

A rustle, footsteps in the corridor outside; James had sprung to his feet. With a gesture he Vanished the pillow entirely, down to the scattered feathers. He was tight-lipped with fury, Sirius saw, so angry that his wand arm shook as he lowered it. 

“They’re fucking crazy,” James muttered. “They’re— Christ.”

“Pomfrey will notice the missing pillow,” Peter said, his voice high with fear.

Somehow this very ordinary concern brought Sirius back to reality. He reclaimed his seat, giving Peter a quelling look.

“Relax. It’s just a pillow. She won’t notice, and even if she does, it’s not like we could’ve done something terrible with a pillow.”

After a long moment, James sat down again too. “It’s not a spell any of you have heard before, is it?”

“I’m not really familiar with this sort of spell,” said Remus dryly.

James adjusted his spectacles, leaning forward as he spoke. “What I mean is — if one of them created it, it has to have been Snape.”

“Come off it.” Peter was looking more worried by the moment. “Snape’s— He’s a slimeball, but he’s not—”

“He’s done it before, hasn’t he? Levicorpus, Muffliato,” James said.

“But...this is different.”

“Exactly,” Sirius said grimly. He expected no better of Snivellus. “Dark curses are just his sort of thing. And if dear Reg’s learned it, you can expect that all their posse knows it too.”

Remus’s frown had turned meditative. “I would guess a Shield Charm still works against it — Protego Maxima, at the very least—”

But Sirius wasn’t listening. Something had clicked into place at last: the bloody gash in the photo he’d been trying so hard not to think about, the way Regulus had turned to this specific curse when confronted with the photo…

“He used it on the cat,” Sirius said, not realising he’d spoken aloud until his friends all turned to look at him. “Sectumsempra. He used it on the cat, on Heathcliff, that was how—” He broke off, sucking in a deep breath, and pressed a hand to his forehead.

The others exchanged glances. 

“Yeah, about the cat,” Peter began, looking more surprised than anyone to have spoken first.

Sirius looked up. His expression was one of such misery that his friends thought, all at once, he was going to cry. They’d never seen it, not properly — not unless you counted the time in third year when Sirius had taken a nasty Bludger to the arm, and had howled when Pomfrey reset the bone. (He himself claimed for years afterwards that his eyes had been involuntarily watering.) 

But this wasn’t like that. This was real, even realer than the loss of an uncle Sirius had expected, deep down, to have to bid goodbye to soon. This was sudden and sharp, like a knife between the ribs, made even worse by the hands that had done it.

But Sirius blinked, and whatever wetness there might have been in his eyes was gone.

“Yeah,” he said hoarsely, “the cat.”

“I still can’t believe you named a female cat Heathcliff,” said Remus, not quite smiling at his own jibe.

Sirius appreciated the attempt nonetheless, and summoned a half-hearted smile of his own. “I named her before I knew, and it’d already stuck. Besides, what mattered was that it was a Muggle character.”

All the better to infuriate Walburga. Sirius felt another sting of regret. If he’d tried to tick her off less, might she have let the cat alone? But there was no point wondering anymore. 

James coughed. “We should have a wake.”

“A — a what?”

“You know. A service, for the cat. Something to remember her by.” He looked terribly awkward for a moment — rare, for James.

Sirius blinked. It was an absurd idea, but it was oddly appealing. Why should his last image of the cat be one that Walburga had conjured up? The more he thought about it the more he liked it.

“Yeah. Yeah, why not?”

They smiled at one another, quiet for just one more moment.

“What did I miss in class all morning?” said Remus at last, settling back against the pillows.

“You want to know the interesting stuff, or what homework we have?” James said.

“Why can’t I have both?”

“Yeah, right, be honest, Moony—”