October 21, 1981
Sirius landed the motorbike on an unkempt patch of grass in front of the safehouse, toed the kickstand down, and took a few moments to look around to make sure he hadn't somehow been followed. His helmet's faceplate was charmed to allow him to see in the dark, but there was nothing to see except for silent, undisturbed moorland in all directions. Not even an invisible attacker could hide here, not without displacing the knee-high carpet of grass and heather that stretched for miles around. Satisfied, Sirius climbed off the bike, hung his helmet on the handlebar and walked toward the front door.
Like all of Dumbledore's safehouses, this one looked like an unpicturesque ruin on the outside, but was presumably more habitable on the inside. When Sirius concentrated, he could feel the wards above him, around him, even in the ground beneath his feet. They didn't trigger when he approached, so Dumbledore must've acceded to James and Lily's request to let him through. That was a relief. Given recent events, Sirius hadn't been entirely sure he'd be allowed to land in one piece. He shook his head ruefully as he recalled James' last vsit two weeks before, and everything that followed it.
There had been some sort of row between James and Dumbledore. Sirius didn't know the details, but he knew it involved him, and possibly Remus and Peter, too. James and Lily had disappeared for weeks, their house dark and empty. Only Dumbledore knew where they'd gone and he wasn't talking. This left Sirius and Remus with nothing to do but sit around and worry. Which is exactly what they were doing -- sitting in the kitchen, picking at a half-eaten supper and worrying -- when they heard someone Apparate into the living room. They rushed in with their wands out, half-expecting a Death Eater attack, only to find James standing in the middle of the room, winded and disheveled, looking as if he hadn't slept in days.
"I'm through with this shit!" he shouted. "They find us anyway. Whatever we do, they find us, and I'm damned if I'm going to hide from my friends when my enemies are beating down the door!"
Sirius started to ask what the hell he was talking about, but he never got a chance, because at that point, James -- good-natured, unflappable James, who never lost his temper for anything -- snatched up a chair and smashed it into the wall so hard that two of the legs came off, and a cloud of plaster dust billowed into the room. And then he sat down right there in the middle of the floor, took off his glasses, and rested his head against his knees.
"If either one of you is trying to kill me," he muttered, "just go ahead and do it, all right? Because I can't deal with this anymore."
There was a long, horrified silence broken only by James' labored breathing, until Sirius recovered enough to haul his friend to his feet and steer him to the sofa.
"Don't be daft, Prongs, of course we're not trying to kill you. Just take a deep breath and tell us what's happening, all right?"
It took quite a lot of deep breaths, but eventually James got the story out. The Potters had gone through ten supposedly secure locations in the month since they'd gone into hiding. None had lasted more than five days before the Death Eaters attacked. Each time, the wards had held long enough for them to grab Harry and get away. But the attacks kept coming, growing more and more frequent, until James and Lily both began to buckle under the strain. The last three raids had come less than a day apart. James had killed three Death Eaters in their final getaway -- the first time he'd ever used his Auror's license to cast an Unforgivable -- and Lily had nearly splinched herself, Apparating with a wailing, struggling Harry in her arms. They couldn't live like this. Nobody could live like this.
"Constant vigilance. Ha!" James' laugh had a distinctly hysterical edge to it. "Alastor doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. I'd been constantly vigilant for a month now, and it's like dying of a wasting curse. Every day there's a little bit less of you left. It's wearing Lily down, too, and Harry never stops crying anymore, and… God…" He broke off with a dry, painful sob. "I swear, if I thought it would end there, I'd off myself and save Voldemort the trouble. It would probably be restful."
"Don't talk like that." Sirius felt ill. He'd never seen James like this. It broke all the sensible laws of the universe, Muggle and magical, to see James like this. Sirius looked over his shoulder at Remus, who hadn't moved or said a word since James had started talking. "We'll work it out. We always work it out. Right, Moony?"
But Remus' face was pale and his voice, when he finally spoke, had the unmistakable sound of barely controlled panic. "James, please tell me you didn't leave Lily and Harry alone to come here."
James shook his head. "Dumbledore is with them. Putting extra wards on the new house. Not that it'll do any good. Even Dumbledore admits it won't do any good."
"Do they know where you've gone?"
Sirius bit back a snarl. What the hell was Remus thinking, lecturing like a disapproving nanny when James was coming apart at the seams? "It's all right--" he began, but Remus kept talking right over him.
"How long ago was the last attack?"
"A couple of hours." James sighed. "And no, they don't know where I've gone. We were standing around yelling -- well, Lily and I were yelling, and Dumbledore was standing around being calm and reasonable, you know how he gets -- and I suppose I just… left."
"You do realize, don't you, that Lily must be worried sick?" Remus sounded almost angry now. "We need to tell her you're here. Is the new house on the floo network?"
"Only internally." James took off his glasses again and rubbed his eyes. "Look, I'm going to go right back, all right? I just wanted to tell you guys something. Dumbledore says that since the safehouses aren't working, the only sure way we can keep ourselves hidden is the Fidelius Charm. He's offered to be our Secret-Keeper." He lifted his head a little, face set in the stubborn, square-jawed expression Sirius recognized from a thousand schoolboy squabbles. "But I want you to do it, Padfoot."
"Of course," Sirius said immediately.
It was hours later, long after a much calmer and more optimistic James had Apparated back to his new not-so-safehouse, that Sirius actually remembered what the Fidelius Charm was.
Remus had mostly quiet while James was around, but once they were alone, he made his disapproval crystal clear.
"Don't do it," he said earnestly, crouching next to the chair where Sirius sat with his seventh-year Defense textbook open in his lap. "Leave it to Dumbledore. It's the safest way."
"Like hell it is." Sirius turned the book sideways to show Remus the two columns of small, closely spaced text giving the details on Fidelius. "Look, if I'm following this right, the spell draws on the Secret-Keeper's magic to effect the concealment. It's a slow, constant drain, and as long as it's in effect, the Secret-Keeper can't use his powers to his full extent. We can't possibly afford to limit Dumbledore that way. I can't believe the old man even suggested it."
"But he did suggest it And I'll bet anything you want he knows exactly what it does. If Dumbledore thinks it's all right for him--"
"Oh, come off it, Remus!" Sirius slammed the book shut. "You know exactly why Dumbledore made that offer. He thinks the traitor's one of us."
"All the more reason for you not to do it," Remus insisted. "Because whether you like it or not, somebody is a traitor. Think about, Sirius -- how have the Death Eaters been finding out where James and Lily are?"
"Not from us! We don't know where they are."
"But we could find out if we really wanted to, couldn't we? Sixth-year Defense class, remember? Tracking spells. The Dark kind."
"I remember." Sirius frowned. "You can find just about anyone if you do the right rituals. But you need something from the target -- blood or hair or nail clippings. And…" he trailed off, suddenly unwilling to go on as the rest of the lesson came back to him.
"And," Remus pressed on relentlessly, "it works better if the spell-caster is someone familiar with the target. Like a close relative or--"
"Or a best friend," Sirius finished harshly. "So which one of us do you think it is, Remus? Me or Peter?" And God, wouldn't it just be fucking hilarious if they'd been suspecting each other all those months?
Remus sat back on his heels and looked at him with cool, expressionless eyes. "How do you know it's not me?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" Sirius forced a laugh. "Are you trying to confess, Moony?"
"I'm trying to make a point. Somebody is a traitor. I figure it's not James or Lily, since they're the ones under attack, and it's not Dumbledore, because if it were, we'd all be long dead by now. Other than that, I'm not making any assumptions, and neither should you. It's not safe for you to be Secret-Keeper."
"I don't care if I'm safe or not." Sirius decided he'd had enough of this conversation. He started to rise from his chair, but Remus grabbed his arm and pulled him back.
"I meant," he said quietly, "it's not safe for James and Lily."
"I'd never give them away!" Sirius wrenched his arm from Remus' grip. "I'd die first."
Remus didn't say anything to that. He just sat there, looking patient, as if waiting for Sirius to work it out. And Sirius, staring back at him, found himself remembering the McKinnons' funeral, and the questions he'd hurled at Remus afterwards, here in the same room.
Tobias had talked. Do you think anyone would?
The Defense book thumped to the floor as Sirius lurched to his feet. He kicked it away, hard enough to crack the spine and send loose pages flying
"I'd die first," he repeated in a hoarse voice, and bolted from the room.
Neither he nor Remus had ever brought up the subject again. But alone, especially at night, Sirius hadn't been able to put it out of his mind. Hadn't been able to stop wondering if Remus' uncomfortable questions had somehow been intended as a warning.
Somebody is a traitor. Don't make assumptions.
Voldemort can control Dark Creatures at a distance.
Remus is not a Dark Creature.
Somebody is a traitor. Don't make assumptions.
Why was Remus so set on a course of action that would limit Dumbledore's powers? And all those questions Remus had asked James -- not unreasonable questions, really. All things a concerned friend might ask. But there was more than one way to use the information. If the new safehouse had been on the floo network, if Lily had been alone in there...
If Voldemort was doing it, then it wasn't Remus' fault, was it? But if the Ministry found out, they'd put him down, just like they'd put down those other werewolves in Yorkshire.
Remus is not a Dark Creature.
Somebody is a traitor. Don’t make assumptions.
Doubt spun circles in Sirius' mind like a dog chasing its tail. Even now, standing at the doorstep of the Potters' latest hideout, he wasn't sure if he was doing the right thing. But it was stupid to back down now, not after he'd come this far. Besides, maybe James would talk him out of it… He knocked on the door.
James still looked rumpled and sleep-deprived, but he managed a faint smile as he opened the door.
"Sirius. Come in. I'd say, make yourself at home, but it's not really an option at the moment."
There were two large trunks stacked on top of each other in the parlor, and a number of suitcases stacked against the wall. James and Lily were moving to a new location every day now, trying to keep a step ahead of the Death Eaters and their tracking spells while they waited for the stars to come into proper alignment for the Fidelius to be performed. So far, it seemed to be working.
Sirius followed James into the kitchen and accepted a butterbeer from a cooler under the sink.
"Where are Lily and Harry? Getting some sleep, I hope?"
"No such luck." James flipped his bottle cap toward the trash bin and missed by about three feet. "Lily's taken Harry and gone to visit her sister."
"Wish I was."
"I thought Lily hated her sister."
"No, her sister hates Lily, which is not at all the same thing." James took a long gulp of his drink and jumped up to sit on the counter next to the sink. "But the Dursleys are the only family she's got left, and once the Fidelius is in place we won't be seeing anybody for who knows how long, and she wanted to visit. I offered to come along, but she said no, maybe they'd be nicer if I wasn't there. So here I am. And there she is."
"I guess I don't blame her," Sirius said doubtfully. He'd had a number of unavoidable encounters with the Dursleys during James and Lily's wedding preparations, and "nice" was not the first word that came to mind when he thought of them. Petunia had walked down the aisle at his side with her shoulders hunched and her elbows tucked in against her side, as if she was afraid of catching something horrible if she accidentally touched him. She had refused to dance with him at the reception, and Vernon had made a point of roughly shouldering him aside as he bundled his precious away from "the freak." Still, as James said, they were Lily's only family. And she had taken Harry along. Everybody loved Harry. "Will they be safe? Going out by themselves like that?"
"As safe as anything else." James swallowed more butterbeer, looking as if he was tasting vinegar. "Including this place. Nowhere's really safe until the Fidelius is cast."
That, Sirius decided, was probably the best opening he was going to get. He drained the rest of his drink in one breath and dropped the bottle into the bin.
"Right. Fidelius. Actually, James, I kind of need to talk to you about that."
"What now?" James looked wary. "Sinistra hasn't changed the date on us again, has she?"
Urania Sinistra, Hogwarts' new Astronomy professor, had taken several days to work out the right date for the spell, and then had had to redo the calculations from scratch when she realized she'd forgotten to include the Hailey's comet trajectory in her equations.
"No, it's still three days from now, as far as I know. This is… this is about something else." Despite the butterbeer, Sirius' mouth felt dry as sand. He had no idea how to say what he needed without making it come out all wrong. "I don't think I should be your Secret-Keeper," he blurted out.
James, unlike Remus, was always easy to read. All his emotions showed on his face as he felt them: surprise, then a brief flash of disappointment, then weary resignation.
"I understand," he said. "It was a hell of a thing to ask. I shouldn't have--"
"No!" Fuck. It had come out all wrong, just like he'd feared it would. "That's not it at all. Look, James, I'm… I'm honored that you asked me. I would've been insulted if you'd asked anyone else. And I want to do it. But I'm too obvious. Especially if someone's passing information to Voldemort, which we know someone is. It wouldn't be safe. For you."
The weariness in James' face smoothed out a bit, replaced by a faintly puzzled expression as he thought over Sirius' words.
"You don't trust yourself," he said after a while.
Sirius winced. "Kind of. I'm not sure I trust anybody in this situation. I keep thinking of Tobias and Anita, see--
James flinched, the way he always did whenever the McKinnons were mentioned. "Sirius, we've been over this a hundred times. It wasn't--"
"Yes, yes, I know. It wasn't Tobias' fault. Everyone keeps saying that. And you know what? It doesn't help anything." Sirius sat down in the nearest chair and stuffed his hands in his pockets to keep from fidgeting. "Look, I'm not going to pretend I'm not afraid of being tortured, because, well, I am, but that's not what really scares me. You know what really scares me?"
"The thought of people standing around at my funeral saying it's not my fault you and Lily are dead."
"I see… I think." James sat down too, though he didn't seem particularly fidgety. "All right, I guess I'll… ask somebody else, then. Not Dumbledore, though, I'm not going to limit him that way."
"I know, I've read the same book." Sirius felt an uncomfortable mixture of relief and disappointment. Relief, because James didn't spit in his face and call him a coward. Disappointment, because James didn't laugh and tell him all his fears were stuff and nonsense. "Listen, I've got the whole thing figured out. You choose another Secret-Keeper, but you don't tell anybody; let everyone keep thinking it's me. I'll run, just like we've planned, but I'll keep in touch with the real Secret-Keeper, every day, so you know I'm out there. Let the Death Eaters waste their resources chasing me around. If they never catch me -- great, everyone's safe. And if they do -- if ever a day goes by and you don't hear from me -- then you'll know the game's up, and you'll have time to act."
James yawned and scratched his head. "I see you've been thinking about this a lot."
"Yeah, I haven't done this much thinking since I took my N.E.W.T.s. But it's a good plan, isn't it?"
"I suppose." James yawned again. "I'll need to talk it over with Lily. But I guess it makes sense."
"Of course it makes sense. Lily will see it." Sirius grinned. "She's always had the brains in the family."
"Yeah, but I've got the looks." James flipped his hair back with a dramatic sweep of his hand that made his fringe stand straight up. "All right, then. We have a plan. What we don't have, of course, is a Secret-Keeper."
"Peter," Sirius said quickly. A little too quickly, judging by the startled look James gave him. Sirius clenched his fists inside his pockets. He had to do this right. He wasn't going to say anything against Remus in front of James, not when all he had was vague suspicions and late-night jitters. But he had to make certain James chose Peter, just to be on the safe side. "If we're going to use the most obvious guy as the decoy, then we should use the least obvious as the real thing, right? And no one ever suspects Peter, 'cos he looks like such a duffer."
"I'm not being mean, you know it's true. People underestimate him. We know what he's capable of, but hardly anyone else does. He won't even have to hide. He can stay in his house, carrying on with life as usual, and no one will think twice about it when they know I've run off. It's perfect."
"You have a point there." James looked pleased. "It'll make Peter happy, too. He always thinks he's not doing enough in the war. Have you talked to him yet?"
Sirius shook his head. "I wanted to check with you first."
"All right, then. You talk to Peter, and I'll talk to Lily when she gets back." James fetched two more butterbeers from the cooler and handed one to Sirius. "To old friends and new plans," he said. They clinked bottles and drank.
"I'd offer you dinner," James said, "but I think all we've got is some day-old takeaway curry and a crate of baby food. I can highly recommend the mashed bananas."
"Thanks, but I think I'll pass." Sirius stood up. "I should get going anyway. Go find Peter. Tell him he's about to become the most wanted man in Britain." He scuffed his boot heel against the chipped tile floor, feeling suddenly self-conscious, and held out his hand. "I guess I won't see you again for a while, will I? Give my love to Lily and Harry and… and be well, all right?"
"Right. You too." James stood also, looking every bit as awkward as Sirius felt, and clasped Sirius' hand. They held on for a few seconds, and when Sirius started to pull away, James tightened his grip. "Sirius?"
"Promise me something."
"Anything you want."
"If something happens to Lily and me -- you'll take care of Harry, right?"
Sirius' throat closed up on him; it took several seconds to get his answer out. "Stop talking rubbish, James. Nothing's going to happen to you and Lily. That's the whole point of this Fidelius business, remember?"
"Promise." James' grip tightened until Sirius thought his fingers might crack. "I need to know he's got somebody, all right? Promise you'll do it."
"Of course I'll do it. I can't believe you're even asking. What did you think I'd say?"
"Sorry." James shrugged. "I just needed to hear it, that's all. You know how it is." And then he muttered, "Aw, hell, Padfoot," in a suspiciously choked voice and pulled him into a rib-cracking hug.
"Yeah, I know. Me too." Sirius clapped James on the back, making him wheeze, then pulled away. "All right, now I really should go."
"Definitely. Quick, before we do anything else embarrassing."
He knew it was premature, but Sirius allowed himself to feel just a little bit hopeful as he climbed back onto his bike. He would go find Peter right away, tell him the plan, get everything settled. And then, maybe, for the first time in weeks, he could sleep easy for a night.
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