The End of the Beginning

by Marina

Chapter 6

July 2, 1981

Giles always found himself glowing with a certain degree of professorial pride when he watched Lily Potter cast a spell. Currently, she was seated cross-legged on the floor, painting a complicated sequence of runes on a circular stone tablet. She had a habit of squinting and sticking her tongue out of the corner of her mouth whenever she was concentrating. It made her look absurdly young, a schoolgirl poring over homework.

Next to Lily, Tobias McKinnon loomed like a small, bearded mountain. The little paintbrush he'd made from a twig of holly and a lock of his own hair looked like a toothpick in his hand, but the runes he drew were perfectly neat and proportioned. Next to him, Peter Pettigrew scrunched up his face in concentration as he dipped his own brush into his ink bowl. Peter's runes were always a little lopsided, but he made up for it by brewing a particularly potent magical ink.

These three were the only ones left of the group that Giles had been introduced to three weeks before, the only ones who had demonstrated any talent for the brand of magic Giles was teaching. The rest had all drifted away, a few at a time, as their repeated efforts produced no results. Sirius Black had been the last to go -- he seemed to have trouble grasping the concept that there was something he just couldn't do no matter how much he applied himself -- though he and Remus Lupin still showed up from time to time to keep James and Harry company while Lily and the others did their work. The gatherings had moved to the Potters' house after the first week, and usually ended with everyone sprawled around the living room, eating take-away and playing games with exploding cards and animated chess pieces. It was the first time in a long while that Giles had anything resembling an active social life, however odd. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed it.

"All done." Lily put down her brush and held her tablet up for inspection. "Want to check it over before I activate it?"

Giles shook his head. "You got it right the last ten tries, I'm sure you have it right this time, too. In fact, why don't you check Tobias and Peter's work yourself while your hardworking instructor has a beer? It'll be good practice for you."

"Teacher's pet," Peter teased in a sing-song voice. Lily cuffed him on the back of the head, and he stuck out his tongue at her.

They were making ward stones; had been making them in mass quantities for two weeks now, at Albus Dumbledore's request. Giles had no idea what Dumbledore was trying to protect, didn't even know if it was many small places or one very large one. He'd pointed out that they had no way of knowing if these wards would be of any use against wizardry, but Dumbledore had smiled cheerily and said, "Well, they won't do any harm, will they? And at the very least, they make nice decorative accents." Giles couldn't really argue with that. Besides, the same technique could be adapted to many other kinds of spells, which Giles put to use whenever ward stones grew too boring.

Giles left Lily, Peter and Tobias to compare their tablets and wandered into the kitchen, where a harassed-looking James was attempting to feed strained carrots to an unwilling Harry.

"Oh, come on, you liked it the last time!" James lifted the bright red baby spoon high in the air and swooped it down toward his son's waiting mouth. "Here comes the Quaffle, into the goal hoop -- score! Oh, bugger." Harry had shut his mouth at the last possible moment, and now had orange mush spattered liberally on his chin and nose, and dripping onto his bib. James put down the spoon and reached for a napkin.

"Maybe he's going to be a goalie when he grows up," Giles suggested.

"Keeper," James corrected automatically. "And that's assuming he lives to grow up, which I wouldn't bet on right now. Come on, Harry, just try it. It's tasty, see?" He took a spoonful himself. "Mmm, yummy!"

Giles took a bottle of lager from the fridge and twisted the cap off. "How bad is it, really?"

James smacked his lips judiciously. "Better than the peas, but not nearly as good as the bananas."

Giles leaned against the counter and sipped his lager as he watched James desperately making funny faces at Harry. He wondered what Ethan would've had to say about such a scene. Something snide and cynical, no doubt. Something that would make Giles laugh and feel appalled at the same time. Something Giles would never get to hear because Ethan, apparently, had set out for greener pastures. Two days after their last, uncomfortable conversation in Giles' flat, there had been a terse note in Giles' mailbox informing him that Ethan was leaving the country for a while. A week later came a postcard from Menton. Since then, nothing. Giles tried not to take it personally. They had drifted apart nearly a decade ago. The reunion on Giles' birthday was obviously just a passing impulse on Ethan's part. Still, it would've been nice to bring him along, introduce him to everyone, maybe convince him that he liked nice people after all...

A loud clatter distracted him from his musings. Harry had managed to slap the spoon from his father's hand and onto the floor. James pulled out his wand, looking as if he was contemplating turning his firstborn into a potted plant, but in the end he only pointed it to the floor and muttered a cleaning spell.

"Maybe," said Giles, "it's time to summon Lily."

James glowered. "No way. Look, we're bigger than him, and we've got him outnumbered. Help me, will you?"

Giles look down at his nice pale-blue shirt which, he suspected, would not be at all improved by the addition of carrot stains. "I'm not sure if that's a good--"

"Look, just provide a distraction, all right? You can do it from a distance."

"Uhm… I suppose I can try." Giles put his bottle down on the counter and contemplated possible ways he might distract a baby from a distance. Finally he folded his hands together and held them up to make a shadow on the kitchen wall. "Look, Harry, it's a dog. Woof." He wiggled his thumbs, and the shadow-dog wiggled its ears.

"Pafoo!" Harry yelled gleefully. To him, all dogs were called Padfoot.

"That's right." Giles made the dog bob up and down, twitch its nose, and open its mouth. "Who is it?"

"Pafmmmph!" Harry was muffled in mid-answer by a mouthful of carrots. He looked indignant but, nevertheless, swallowed most of it.

"Hah!" James looked triumphant. "I knew we could do it! Thanks, Giles."

"My pleasure."

"Speaking of Padfoot…" James looked over his shoulder toward the living room. "Have Sirius and Remus turned up yet?"

"Not yet."

"Ah." A brief shadow of worry flitted across James' face, so quick Giles would never had noticed if he hadn't been expecting it. "Well, they'll show up when they show up. How about another bite, Harry?"

Harry had apparently decided that he liked carrots after all, because he gave no more trouble as James continued to feed him. Giles sat back and observed the proceedings, sipping his drink and wrestling with the curiosity that was tempting him to ask questions about Sirius and Remus and what exactly they did for a living.

It was an intriguing mystery. Giles knew that James, Alastor Moody and Anita McKinnon were Aurors, which was something like the wizarding equivalent of an anti-terrorist police squad. He knew that Tobias practiced law at Lincoln's Inn, that Peter was apprenticed to an apothecary in Diagon Alley, and that Lily was an independent researcher consulting for the Department of Experimental Charms. Only Sirius and Remus had not admitted to any occupation. Yet they were clearly doing something, something that caused their friends to fidget and fret and throw worried glances at the door. They also tended to show up with mysterious injuries, though Giles wasn't sure if that was a result of their work, or of that insane flying motorbike of Sirus'.

Once, Giles had hazarded a question, using Sirius' broken arm as an excuse. Sirius had laughed and said, "I'd tell you about it, but then I'd have to kill you" in a dramatically sinister voice. Since there was at least some chance that it might be true, Giles didn't press the point. But it didn't stop him from being curious.

He finished his beer and wandered back into the living room to discover that Lily had approved Peter and Toby's runes. They performed the incantation together, and Giles watched with approval as the spell took shape, first as a faintly luminous cloud swirling in the center of the room, then a brightly glowing, well-defined pattern that sank into the three tablets and snapped into place with an almost audible click. As usual, Lily's ward was noticeably the strongest of the three. She was by far the most gifted witch Giles had ever observed, channeling magical energy as naturally as she breathed. It seemed incredible that she had lived over twenty years without becoming aware of her ability; but Giles supposed that any past signs would've been seen as manifestations of her wizarding talent.

The roar of an engine outside signaled the arrival of Sirius and Remus. The air in the room seemed to lighten suddenly as people who had been pretending to be at ease all evening finally let go of their tension and relaxed for real. Unfortunately, the relaxation didn't last long. It was obvious almost from the moment they came in that something was badly off between Sirius and Remus.

Sirius was sporting singed eyebrows and a truly spectacular black eye. Remus' left arm was bandaged from wrist to elbow. Giles had seen them in worse shape before and knew that the injuries were no real cause for concern. The forced smiles with which they greeted Lily and the way they avoided looking at each other were an entirely different matter.

It was a long and awkward dinner. Sirius and Remus contrived to sit at opposite ends of the table, where Sirius glared and brooded at stabbed at his food as if he had a grudge against it while Remus, in a near-perfect imitation of his usual placid manner, made small talk with Lily about some antique spell books he'd found in a Muggle shop on Charing Cross Road. Harry, sensitive to the mood of the adults around him, became fretful and noisy. Lily took him upstairs as soon as dinner was over and did not come down again. Shortly afterwards, Tobias departed with some barely-convincing excuse about meeting Anita for coffee after her shift. Giles was just trying to come up with an excuse of his own when Peter gave a highly unconvincing yawn, following by an equally unconvincing start as he looked at his watch.

"Good grief, is that the time? I really need to get going, hard day at work tomorrow and all that. Giles, do you want to walk out to the Knight Bus with me?"

"Might as well." Giles felt a momentary pang for James, who had no pretext for escaping his own house, but decided there was nothing he could do in any case. However much he liked these people, he was still a relative stranger to them and in no position to help mediate quarrels.

He and Peter collected their jackets and ambled outside. The evening was cool and clear, with the remnants of a spectacular sunset fading in the distance. The Potters' front garden smelled of fresh-cut grass. Sirius' bike was parked at an angle at the edge of the footpath, front tire mashing one of Lily's rosebushes -- a surefire indicator of just how agitated its rider had been. Giles looked back over his shoulder at the house.

"Do they get like this often?"

"No." Peter clenched his hands and shoved them into his pockets. "I have no idea what that's all about. I haven't seen Remus this angry since…" He winced and ducked his head. "Not since we were at school."

"Remus?" Giles was surprised. "I thought it was Sirius who seemed angry."

"Nah, he's just worried." A wry note crept into Peter's voice. "When Sirius is angry, you'll hear about it. When Sirius is angry, people in China get to hear about it. With Remus, you'll never know unless you know what to look for." He sighed. "Well, whatever it is, it's probably Sirius' fault. Hopefully he'll apologize and it will all blow over in a couple of days."

A week later, at James' twenty-second birthday celebration, it hadn't blown over yet.

It was not a very comfortable party. Oh, there was laughter and alcohol aplenty, but Giles thought there was a desperate edge to it, as if everyone present was determined to have fun or die trying. There had been some sort of a clash between Aurors and Death Eaters three days before. Apparently, it had gone unusually well, since all the Aurors had survived the experience, but there had been a number of close calls. Alastor Moody had three new scars, Anita McKinnon was wearing a hat because most of her hair had been burnt off, and James' hands were swathed in bandages while he "waited for the skin to grow back." Lily had to spoon-feed him his share of the cake and while she made light of it, offering to lend him Harry's bib and high chair, there was no disguising the strain in her voice or the worry in her eyes.

After an hour of this, Giles was seized with an irresistible desire for silence, fresh air and a cigarette. He wandered out onto the back porch, then down into the garden, and followed a winding little footpath around a corner of the house. It was relatively quiet there, only faint traces of music and voices drifting out from inside. Giles leaned against a tree, lit up, and was just starting to relax when he heard the back door slam. Footsteps stomped rapidly across the porch. Giles recognized the heavy tread of Sirius' motorcycle boots even before he heard his voice.

"--Said I was sorry about a million times, Moony, how long am I supposed to grovel before you stop avoiding me?"

"I wasn't avoiding you." Remus' voice clearly indicated that he'd had this conversation before and was resigned to keep having it for the foreseeable future. "I was trying to have a conversation with Circe. And I never asked you to grovel, I asked you to drop the subject."

"Yeah, ‘cos that always works so well." More stomping. Apparently, Sirius was pacing the porch. There was no sound at all from Remus. Giles, well aware that he should either step forward and declare his presence or retreat out of hearing range, stayed where he was. After a few more rounds of pacing, he heard Sirius sigh.

"Look, I was wrong, all right? I shouldn't have volunteered us without asking you first. But you've never balked at a mission before, so how was I supposed to know you'd dig your heels in on that one? I still don't see why it's such a big deal."

"Don't you?" Remus asked quietly.

Sirius didn't answer that right away. He had stopped pacing and was now leaning on the porch railing. Giles could see his long, shaggy-haired shadow on the flower bed below. The shadow fidgeted and scuffed its feet.

"You don't know these people, Moony. You don't owe them anything."

"And I owe Albus everything. I know. I hated to refuse him. But we all have limits, Sirius, and this is mine. I will not spy on my kind."

"Your kind?" Sirius gave an incredulous laugh and smacked his hands against the railing, which creaked in protest. "We're talking about Death Eaters here. Traitors and murderers. Just because they have the same disease as you do doesn't make them your kind!"

More silence. More fidgeting from shadow Sirius. "Shit. Look, I--"

"I'm going to go for a walk now." The steps creaked faintly, and Remus came into sight on the footpath. For a moment Giles thought he was caught, but apparently luck was with him, because Remus turned and stalked off in the opposite direction with quick, long strides, never looking behind him.

"We're your kind, Moony!" Sirius ran down the steps too, but made no attempt to follow his friend any further. He stood on the path for a long time, staring in the direction Remus had gone, one hand absently plucking the leaves from an innocent hydrangea bush. Giles was just starting to wonder if he could get away with sneaking around to the front door without being heard, when Sirius spoke again. "For fuck's sake, Giles, stop lurking. You aren't any good at it; that cigarette reeks."

"Sorry." Giles wandered over to stand next to Sirius on the path. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop."

"Yes, you did."

"All right, maybe I did." Giles took another unrepentant drag off his reeking cigarette. "But if you really didn't want me to overhear, you would've said something sooner."

"Amazingly enough, I only noticed you there a moment ago." Sirius scowled. "Which only goes to prove that my brain's not working up to par tonight. No wonder I can't get my foot out of my mouth."

"Happens to the best of us," Giles said.

Sirius rubbed the back of his neck. "You shouldn't smoke those things, you know. They'll kill you."

"As opposed to flying motorbikes, super-powerful evil wizards and, uhm, doing whatever it is you and Remus do for a living?"

That actually got a laugh out of Sirius. "Yeah, as opposed to that. But hey, at least I'll smell good when I die."

"Yes, yes, I can take a hint." Giles dropped the cigarette and ground it out with his shoe. "So how about being friends with a werewolf? How likely is that to get you killed?"

"I don't know," Sirius said lightly. "Why do you ask?"

It would've been a perfectly convincing performance is he didn't stand so suddenly, uncharacteristically still as he said it. Giles considered pretending to believe him, but it seemed a shame to back down having come this far.

"Remus was noticeably affected the two times I demonstrated a spell with aconite as a component. He was ill the day of the last full moon -- worse than usual, I mean. And, of course, the conversation you two had just now… I wasn't sure, but I thought I'd take a shot in the dark. Feel free to laugh in my face if I'm wrong."

Sirius did not laugh. "I keep forgetting," he said thoughtfully, "that you're not a regular Muggle. I'm impressed. It took James and Peter and me over a year to work it out. Of course, we were twelve at the time. So… are you going to have a problem with this?"

"Am I supposed to?"

"No!" Sirius snarled so furiously that Giles automatically took a step back. "You fucking well aren't."

"Then I won't."

"All right, then." Sirius plastered a resolute smile on his face. "End of discussion. Let's go and make James open his presents."

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