Sirius crouched in the stern of the boat, blinked the salt spray from his eyes and tried not to fidget. The wind stung his face and whipped his hair back, rocked the boat and churned the sea into a foaming frenzy, but did nothing to dispel the thick gray fog that smothered everything in sight. Sirius thought he could feel it swirling in his lungs when he breathed. He had to squint to see the other men in the boat with him: Moody hunched on the bow like a particularly grotesque figurehead, James near the mast, Fletcher at the tiller. There were ten boats altogether. Sirius couldn't see the others through the fog, but he knew they were nearby, ferrying a hand-picked group of Aurors, Hit Wizards and independent agents like himself and Fletcher.
Remus should've been there, but Remus had refused to come.
Sirius scowled fiercely and clenched his hands tighter around the broomstick that lay across his lap. A Shooting Star Mark Three, the best on the market, enhanced with extra charms for waterproofing and stability. Sirius would've preferred his bike. It was too loud, too big to fit in the boat, and generally too impractical for the enterprise, but he didn't care. Having it would've been like having an extra friend along. He wanted the bike. He wanted Remus in the boat with him. He wanted this stupid fog to go away. For someone who was regularly accused of always getting what he wanted, he was having a remarkably bad day.
The sea was getting choppier, and the boat pitched and bounced as it cut across the waves. It was propelled by magic rather than oar or sail, and the resulting motion seemed strangely unnatural, out of sync with the water beneath it. Sirius' stomach felt queasy. Just a touch of seasickness, he told himself. Not nerves. He'd be all right once he had something solid to stand on.
"Almost there," Fletcher hissed. "Everyone got your brooms?"
"Got it," James whispered. Moody gave a presumably affirmative grunt. Sirius nodded, not particularly caring if Fletcher could see him or not. He leaned forward, looking for any sign of the island they were supposedly approaching, but saw nothing but thick, swirling grayness. It had to be magical, Sirius thought; no natural fog could've stood up to this constant gale. The Death Eaters must've conjured it up to keep their Channel base hidden. The island was already unplottable, invisible to Muggle eyes, and layered with more wards and concealment spells than any place Sirius had ever been, with the possible exception of Hogwarts. He spared a bit of grudging respect for Mundungus Fletcher for tracking the place down. If luck favored them in the next few hours, they would be taking out Voldemort's largest stronghold south of London.
Fletcher whispered an anchoring spell under his breath, and the boat lurched to an abrupt stop. There was a thump and a bit of muffled swearing from James, who had apparently banged a sensitive spot against the mast.
"Shh." Fletcher let go of the tiller and bent down to retrieve his broom. "We're here. Can you feel the anti-Apparition wards?"
Sirius concentrated for a moment and felt it: the faint shiver of magic along his skin, barely more tangible than the fog. He swept his arm out in a circle. Two feet behind him, the shivery feeling stopped. They were right at the edge of the wards, then, a quarter of a mile from shore. Unless the Death Eaters had changed their perimeter since the last time Fletcher had scouted the place… Well, there was nothing they could do about it in any case. They couldn't take the boats in any closer, the incoming tide was too strong. Sirius rose cautiously to his feet, mounted his broom, and tried not to think about flying face first into a cliff.
Pushing off from a rocking boat was a tricky business, and the battering wind didn't make it any easier. Sirius wobbled like a clumsy First-year, but managed to recover without pitching himself into the water. James took off without the slightest hitch, the poncy show-off, but Moody took two tries, and Fletcher actually splashed his feet in the water before rising up to join them. Sirius hoped that the fog would hide his smirk.
Flying blind was just as unnerving as sailing blind, but at least Sirius no longer felt seasick. He gripped his broomstick tightly, kept an eye on Fletcher's flapping cloak, and hoped that the other boats had arrived safely. It would be a fine joke if they touched down on the island to discover there was only the four of them to face off against twenty Death Eaters and an unknown number of Dark Creatures.
Fletcher swooped downwards. Sirius followed, and found himself bathed in daylight. Well, twilight, actually, but after the fog it seemed painfully bright. There was no transition -- one moment he'd been smothered in gray, the next moment he was hovering under a cloudless sky, looking down at blue and green and white and brown. Sirius glanced over his shoulder and saw a wall of thick, roiling mist a few feet behind him, stretching out left and right as far as he could see.
Below him, the island jutted from the waves, all sheer cliffs and sharp, jagged rocks. It was just as Fletcher had described: barren except for a few patches of scrubby grass and a couple of gnarled, stunted trees flanking a narrow strip of pebbled beach. A flock of gulls milled about near the high tide line, squawking irritably at each other. The waves smashed against the rocks with brutal force, sending explosions of white spray high enough to spatter Sirius' boots as he brought his broom up alongside James and Moody. There was only one structure: a square, flat-topped tower made of matte black stone, with narrow slits for windows. The walls were too smooth and seamless to have been built the Muggle way. Voldemort must've put it up when he took the place over.
Flyers were emerging from the mist-wall, red Auror robes snapping in the wind alongside the Hit Wizards' midnight-blue garb. Sirius knew most of the faces, at least by sight, but a few were unfamiliar. He pulled his wand out, and saw that everyone else was doing the same. The island seemed quiet enough, but there was no telling when someone might start blasting curses from the tower, and they were all horribly exposed as they descended, with the clear sky at their backs.
Sirius landed at the high tide line and trudged up the beach toward James and Moody, who were putting their brooms down in the shelter of a convenient boulder. Sirius dropped his in the same spot and clapped James on the shoulder.
"So far, so good, huh?"
"A little too good, if you ask me," Moody grumbled. "Why aren't they attacking? They must've seen us coming. We should've been dodging hexes all the way down."
"Stop moaning," said James. "You know, most people are grateful not be attacked when they're trying to maneuver a broom into landing on sloping ground in a high wind."
Moody kept scowling. "I just like to know where my enemies are, that's all. Constant vigilance."
"Constant paranoia is more like it." James grinned, but his eyes were wary, and Sirius was sure that he felt at least some fraction of his partner's concern. Sirius felt it too, a cold, unpleasant prickling at the back of his neck. Once again, he found himself wishing desperately for Remus' steady presence at his back. He looked around the beach, noting Anita talking with Frank Longbottom a few paces away, Tom and Myra Bones checking their brooms, Cadmus Flint and Paul Parkinson looking around with identical grim expressions. Even Fletcher had paired off, having tracked down Arabella Figg, who'd come in another boat.
Not fair, he thought, well aware of his own childishness. Everyone's got a partner except me.
A gull marched past him, stopping a few feet away to poke its beak into a clump of rotting seaweed. Sirius kicked a pebble at it. It hopped aside and fixed him with a hostile, beady glare before returning to its exploration of the seaweed. Sirius' sense of unease grew more intense. He looked up and down the beach. There were at least fifty gulls strutting around.
Moody gave him a sharp look. "What is it, Black?"
"Don't birds usually get scared and fly away when a bunch of humans on broomsticks come down on top of them?"
The gull flapped its wings and gave a shrill, furious shriek. Its neck stretched upwards and its head flattened. The wings shrank, and the grimy gray-and-white feathers turned dark and glossy. The shriek became a hiss, and then a six-foot-long black serpent writhed among the stones where the bird had been.
"Stupefy!" Sirius shouted. The serpent collapsed into a limp coil, but the effect lasted only a couple of seconds. Then it twitched, lifted its diamond-shaped head off the ground and slithered toward Sirius with startling speed.
Sirius fell back a step and bumped into James, who also had his wand out. "Stupefy!" they yelled together. That did the trick: the force of the combined spells actually blasted the serpent a couple of feet into the air; it fell back to the ground, scattering pebbles and bits of seaweed when it struck, and lay still.
There was no time to savor the victory. All over the beach, seagulls were transforming into serpents and attacking every witch and wizard in sight.
"They're kelpies!" somebody shouted. "Bridle them!"
"That only works if they're in horse shape!" Sirius cast three more Stunning spells in quick succession, stopping a thin, blue-green snake just as it began to loop itself around his ankles. "You have to stun them until the stay down!"
His broom was only a few feet away. Sirius stepped toward it, and yet another kelpie darted to intercept him. He tried to step over it, which proved to be a mistake: just as he lifted his right foot, the creature coiled its tail around his left leg and yanked, toppling him over. He managed to hold on to his wand as he fell, but casting a Stunning spell on something that was currently wrapped around his shin seemed like a bad idea. Sirius swore and kicked out with his free foot, aiming for the kelpie's head. Unfortunately, a snake-shaped kelpie appeared to have all the same properties as a real snake, which meant that kicking it only served to hack it off. It hissed, flicked its wriggly forked tongue, and sank an impressive pair of curved yellow fangs into Sirius' leg.
Sirius swore, gripped the kelpie by the neck and tried to pull it off, but it was surprisingly strong and too thick to get a decent grip on. After a short and thoroughly unsuccessful struggle, Sirius surrendered to the inevitable and raised his wand.
"Stupefy-stupefy-stupefy!" Even with the kelpie's body absorbing most of the spell, it felt like a giant hammer smashing down on his leg, but at least it worked. The kelpie went limp, and Sirius was able to pry its fangs out of his thigh. Actually getting the bloody thing off him was going to take time, however, and already there were two more slithering toward him. Sirius tried a Body Bind on one and found that it worked on the first attempt, but trying to pronounce "Petrificus Totalus" with a ten-foot snake bearing down on him seemed like more trouble than it was worth. He stunned the second one and kept his wand up, waiting for the next attack, but none came. Sirius sat up, braced one hand on a rock behind him, and looked around.
The ground was littered with unconscious kelpies, all in serpent form. A few were still twitching. A number of very irritated Aurors and Hit Wizards prowled up and down the beach, stunning anything that looked too lively. Sirius saw a few people nursing injuries, but at least everyone was on their feet. Well, everyone except himself.
"I see you've found a new girlfriend." James bent over him, grinning. His hair was even messier than usual and his glasses were askew, but he otherwise he looked undamaged. "You seem very close. Shall I leave you two alone?"
"Nah." Sirius glared down at the kelpie that was still wrapped around his leg, grabbed it by the tail and began uncoiling it. "I don't like her, she's too clingy."
His leg was numb from the knee down, and the two punctures left by the kelpie's fangs were bleeding sluggishly. Sirius cast a quick Incruentus to staunch the bleeding and climbed to his feet. The leg bore his weight well enough, though he suspected it was going to hurt like hell any minute now.
"If kelpie bites are poisonous," he grumbled, "don't tell me."
"This makes no sense." Anita stood a few feet away from them, poking a particularly large and garishly patterned serpent with her foot. "Kelpies are solitary creatures. You never even see two together except in mating season. What are they all doing here?"
"Voldemort's bidding," Fletcher said grimly. "I warned you he's learned to control Dark Creatures, didn't I?"
There was a rather tense silence after that. Was it Sirius' imagination, or was everyone giving him pointed looks? He glared back and resisted the urge to shout "Remus is not a Dark Creature!" at the top of his voice. It probably wouldn't go over well. Hell, he couldn't even convince Remus, so how likely was it that the rest of the world would listen?
"Sirius?" James was frowning at him through dirt-flecked glasses. "Are you all right?"
"Fine." Sirius bounced up and down on the balls of his feet to show how fine he was. The movement sent a twinge of pain down his leg, but he met James' concerned gaze without wincing. "Perfect. Raring to go." He looked over James' shoulder at Moody, whose left sleeve was torn and stained with blood. "Happy now, Moody? We've been attacked."
"Too easy," Moody grunted.
James rolled his eyes. "Some people are never satisfied."
They encountered no more creatures, Dark or otherwise, as they hiked across the island. They did encounter a couple of Distracting Charms -- one of the junior Aurors actually wandered off in a random direction and walked face-first into a boulder before they caught up with him -- and one Dragonfire Hex that would've wiped out half the team if Anita hadn't spotted the tripwire that triggered it. When the base of the tower came into view, Fletcher had them split up into smaller groups and spread out in a wide semicircle covering the three visible entrances.
"Remember, no stupid heroics," he growled with a totally unwarranted glare in Sirius' direction. "They must know we're here by now, and once we get inside it's likely to get ugly. We don't know what sort of nasty surprises Voldemort's built into that tower, but the Death Eaters do. Look sharp, stay with your team, and keep your Defensive Charms up. I want this place secured before it gets dark."
Sirius looked west, where the sun was a tiny sliver of orange above the horizon.
"No problem," he said cheerfully and limped after James and Moody as they moved into their assigned position opposite the main entrance. He was sharply aware of the flat, open terrain all around the tower, offering no cover at all for the attackers. Defensive charms were no use at all against Avada Kedavra. Their best hope would be to move fast and hope the Death Eaters had rotten aim. Sirius rubbed his injured leg, grimacing at the answering stab of pain. He was probably all right for a short sprint, he decided. And once the fighting started, the speed of his wand would matter a lot more than the speed of his feet.
And then Fletcher gave the signal and there was no time to worry anymore, no time to do anything but move. Sirius ran, trying to simultaneously watch the tower ahead of him, the ground right in front of him, and the other wizards moving alongside him. His leg threatened to buckle under him a couple of times, but he kept his footing and was only a few paces behind James and Moody when Moody blasted open the door.
The ground floor of the tower was a single square chamber with bare walls, a high oak-beamed ceiling and a curving staircase at the back. It contained no furniture, no decorations and, more to the point, no Death Eaters.
"Uhm…" James turned around in a circle and used the tip of his wand to push up his glasses, which had slid down to the tip of his nose while he'd been running. "There's nobody here."
"A brilliant observation." Sirius walked over to the staircase and brushed his hand along the top of the banister. His fingers came away clean. "They couldn't have been gone long; the place isn't even dusty."
"So where is everyone?" That was Anita, coming in though one of the smaller doors with Longbottom at her side and the rest of her team trailing behind. "Did they abandon the place?"
"When?" Fletcher stared up at the ceiling as if expecting Death Eaters to start dropping from the beams. "The anti-Apparition wards are still in place. If they took off on brooms or flying carpets, we would've seen them."
"Maybe they left before we arrived," James suggested. Fletcher shook his head irritably.
"They've been here for almost a year, why would they leave now? It's not as if they knew we were comi--" He broke off abruptly. His face went pale. "Or did they?"
Sirius was getting that shivery feeling down the back of his neck again. "I think we should get out of here."
A harsh, whip-crack sound echoed through the room, accompanied by a flash of light and a cry of pain. One of the Aurors from Anita's team had tried to step back outside, only to be thrown backwards into the room. A curtain of crackling blue light filled the doorway, shooting off tiny hissing sparks whenever anyone got to near it. Sirius spun around to look at the other two doors and found that they, too, were glowing. Even the windows were blocked, though they were too narrow to climb through.
"Fuck." Moody stabbed his wand at the nearest window. "Finite Incantatem!" Nothing happened. "Does anyone recognize this spell?"
"Afraid not." Sirius walked back to the main door, stopping just out of arm's reach from the weird glow. It gave off no heat or smell, but the air in front of it vibrated with a low, almost subliminal hum. Sirius reached out with one hand, then jerked his hand back as the door spat a tiny cloud of sparks at him. He tried an Alohomora, just for form's sake, and wasn't surprised when nothing happened. "James?"
"Never seen anything like it." James stood close to a window, one hand raised to shield his eyes from the sparks. "Get back," he shouted to the people still outside. "It's a trap!"
"Do you think we could blast our way out?" Anita asked. "Blow a hole in the wall, maybe?"
"I suppose it's worth a try." Sirius rapped his knuckles against the wall next to him.
There was a deep, rumbling sound, like an avalanche on a distant mountainside. The floor shuddered. Stone chips and wooden splinters rained from the ceiling.
"Whoa…" Sirius took a shaky step backwards. "I didn't do that."
There was another tremor, stronger than the first. A jagged crack split one of the walls from floor to ceiling, and one of the window panes shattered, spraying a shower of broken glass over Anita and Longbottom, who staggered back with their arms shielding their faces. The ceiling beams creaked ominously.
"Shield charm!" Moody bellowed. "Above our heads, count of three: one… two… THREE!"
Sirius raised his wand and chanted the spell. He could barely hear himself, or the others, over the rumble of the trembling walls. The floor was pitching so hard now, he had to go down on one knee to keep from toppling over. But he felt the shield taking shape as his own spell snapped into place alongside the rest, forming an invisible but solid dome of magic ten feet above his head. When the tower shook again, the loosened debris bounced off like rain off a tin roof.
A chunk of granite the size of a melon smashed into the center of the shield and shattered into smaller pieces. Sirius' wand hummed like a tuning fork. He could feel the vibration all the way down his arm. He braced his free hand on the floor and muttered a reinforcing charm, just in time to absorb the impact as one of the ceiling beams came down in two pieces.
Someone swore. Somebody else gasped in pain. Sirius couldn't decide which sentiment he agreed with more. The tower groaned and swayed, more cracks spreading through the walls, ever-larger pieces of stone crashing down. Sirius' arm felt like lead, and his wand grew blister-hot in his hand. He could feel each blow on the shield as an answering shudder deep in his bones. He didn't even realize he'd bitten through his lip until he saw the splattered drops of blood on the floor in front of him.
A section of the wall crumbled away, leaving a long, narrow gap. A gust of wind howled in, spraying rain across the floor and rapidly cooling the room. Sirius groaned as yet more weight settled on the shield, but at the same time he felt a surge of hope. The gap was free of the blue glow that blocked the doors and windows, and it was large enough for a single person to fit through.
"There's our exit," Moody announced, sounding as if he'd expected it all along. "All right, everyone, when I call your name, go! And if I spot anyone dawdling, I'll hex you myself. Flint… Thomas… Chelsea…"
He was sending the weaker, less experienced wizards out first, leaving the stronger ones behind to maintain the shield. Sirius could feel the magic flickering and shifting above him as the spell reshaped itself to fill the void after each departing witch and wizard. Sweat soaked through his robes despite the chilling wind, and the muscles in his shoulder cramped. He wasn't sure he could lower his arm even if he'd wanted to. He kept chanting the reinforcing charm over and over, and gave silent thanks that he wasn't the one who had to stand there and decide which name to call out next.
"Longbottom... Parkinson... Fletcher... Potter..."
Sirius breathed a sigh of relief as he watched James duck through the gap, then dodged aside just in time to avoid getting his head caved in by a Bludger-sized chunk of stone. The shield was fragmenting, he realized, buckling under the weight of the accumulating debris. There were four wizards left inside now: himself, Moody, Arabella Figg and Anita; Sirius didn't think that three would be enough to maintain the charm. The next name called would almost certainly be the last survivor.
Moody must've had the same thought, because he hesitated for the first time before finally calling out, "Figg!"
Arabella climbed slowly to her feet, still holding her wand raised above her head.
"Move your bloody arse, Figg, I don't have all day!"
Arabella looked as if she had a great deal more to say, but all she did was set her jaw and turn toward the opening in the wall. Sirius took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
Here it comes...
He felt it, the moment when Arabella left and the shield shattered. It hurt more than the avalanche of stone and wood that cascaded down on him, crushing him under its weight. He tried to crawl, but something unbearably heavy landed across his back, and he found he couldn't move. Thunder roared in his ears and bright spots of color filled his vision.
Ah, well, it was a good run while it las--
There was fog again, everywhere, but it was different this time -- warm and still and not at all threatening. He floated in it, weightless and numb. It was a wonderfully restful feeling. He would've been content to just stay there and enjoy it, but somebody kept calling his name.
"Sirius?" The voice seemed to be coming from a great distance away, yet somebody was patting his hand. "Come on, Sirius, I saw you move. If you can hear me, say something obnoxious."
"Sod off," he muttered, but it was too late. The fog was receding, and taking the restfulness with it. He was back in his body again, and it hurt. And the voice that had made him come back was making joyful whooping noises, which struck Sirius as a classic case of adding insult to injury. Some people had no consideration at all.
Sirius opened his eyes and saw a white blur. He blinked, and the blur became a tiled ceiling. "Where am I?"
"St. Mungo's." It was Peter's voice, coming from somewhere to his left. Sirius turned his head -- a surprisingly difficult maneuver -- and saw a dark, indistinct shape hovering at his side. He had to blink again to make his eyes focus at the closer distance. It took a ridiculous amount of effort just to move his eyelids up and down, and his big reward for it was the sight of Peter's pudgy face smiling down at him uncertainly.
"You've been here five days. And you're not supposed to move, talk or get excited, so keep still now or the nurses will kick me out."
Sirius was happy with that. Just keeping still hurt quite enough -- sharp shooting pains in every part of his body. The sensation was familiar, and after a few moments' concentration he identified it as the effect of Skele-Gro potion. Recognition triggered memory, flooding him with disturbing images: crumbling black walls, an exploding window, splashes of blood on the floor…
He tried to remember who was in the tower with him. James had gone, he remembered that much, but he couldn't recall if he ever actually saw Arabella leaving, and then there was Moody... and Anita...
He had a thousand questions to ask, but he wasn't sure he could draw breath to speak. His chest felt as if he was regrowing all his ribs from scratch. Fortunately, Peter knew him well enough to provide the answers unprompted.
"James is all right. He and Remus have been in and out of here every day. We've all been taking turns sitting with you." Peter's smile broadened into a genuine grin. "Boy, won't they be jealous when they find out you woke up on my shift!"
What about the others? Sirius wanted to ask. All that came out was, "…Others?..."
Peter understood. "Moody's all right. Better off then you are, even. I went past his room last night, and he was sitting up and cussing at the nurses. Tough old bastard… I don't know about Arabella; I heard she had a great big chunk of wall come down on her head just as she was running out. She's in the intensive care ward, only family allowed in. And..." He hesitated, biting his lip, and Sirius felt suddenly cold. "I'm sorry, Sirius. Anita's dead."
"Oh." Sirius turned away to stare at the ceiling again. The clean white tiles were restful to look at, and if his vision blurred again, well, it was only a ceiling, right?
Anita had stood less than ten feet away from him when the tower came down. There was absolutely no reason for her to be dead while he was alive. It was bad luck, that's all, nothing but pure chance, and how the fuck would he ever look Tobias McKinnon in the face ever again?
"Sirius? Are you… do you want a drink of water, or something?"
Yes, of course. A drink of water would fix everything. "Yeah, thanks."
Peter brought him a glass with a straw in it. The cold water did feel good going down, but Sirius pushed the glass away after a few sips because feeling good seemed blasphemous somehow. He knew it made no sense. He didn't care.
"I'm sorry." Peter looked pale and nervous. There were dark shadows under his eyes, and his hair needed a wash. Sirius wondered how long he'd been sitting there at his bedside. "Maybe I shouldn't have told you so soon."
"Yes, you should've." Sirius found that he could manage complete sentences if he kept his voice low and his breaths shallow. "I wanted to know. Thank you."
"Yes, well…" Peter ducked his head, hiding his face from view. "I should go and let somebody know you're awake." He turned away from the bed, but Sirius reached out and grabbed his sleeve.
"Wait." Something ground painfully inside his wrist. He flinched, gritted his teeth and held on. "Don't go yet."
Peter darted a nervous glance toward the door. "They made me promise--"
"Just a few minutes." He wasn't ready yet to deal with the healers fussing over him, with their invasive spells and well-meant advice, pouring potions down his throat and telling him he was lucky to be alive. "You can tell them later."
"All right. A few minutes." Peter sat down again, sliding his chair closer to the bed, and gave a faint shadow of the mischievous grin Sirius remembered from their school days. "But if we get into trouble," he said, "I'll tell them it was all your idea."
"What else is new?" Sirius tried to grin back, but his heart wasn't in it. "Peter… do you know what happened?"
Peter's grin faded. "I know what James told me."
"They knew we were coming." Sirius clenched his fingers around the edges of the mattress, ignoring the throbbing pain in his hands. "They had time to clear everything and everyone off that island, to place the spells on the tower, to gather all those kelpies on the beach… Someone told them we were coming."
"Yeah…" Peter shifted uneasily in his seat. "Look, Sirius, this isn't a good time to--"
"It couldn't have been just anyone. This was a top secret mission. Nobody knew except Dumbledore, Crouch, and those of us who actually went."
And Remus. He hated himself for even having such a thought, but it wouldn't go away. Remus, who knew about the raid and didn't go. Not safe, he said. If Voldemort had really learned to control Dark Creatures, if he'd taught the Death Eaters how to do it, then it wasn't safe for a werewolf to be there. But there had been no Death Eaters on the island, and the kelpies had still attacked. Whoever controlled them had done it from a distance.
Which had nothing to do with Remus, who was not a Dark Creature, and under no one's control but his own.
Peter was gnawing at his thumbnail, a habit he had supposedly dropped back in fourth year. "Sirius… don't worry about it now, okay? I'm going to go talk to the healers now."
There was something off about his voice, his posture, the way he wouldn't quite meet Sirius' eyes...
"Peter. You know something."
"What? No, of course not, I just--"
"Don't lie to me, Peter, you know you're no good at lying. What is it? Did they find the spy?" Not Remus. It couldn't be Remus. Why wouldn't Peter look at him, damn it? It couldn't be Remus...
Peter sighed and clasped his hands in his lap. There was a smudge of blood on his thumb where he'd bitten the nail to the quick.
"I suppose I might as well tell you. You'll find out soon enough. After the raid, James and Frank Longbottom went to see Tobias McKinnon. To tell him about Anita."
Sirius winced. He could recall far too many occasions over the past few years when James had gone to deliver news of an Auror's death to the family. Such days usually ended with Sirius, Remus and Peter delivering an unconscious James into Lily's care sometime after the pubs in Later Alley had closed. James hardly ever drank, but when he did, he was serious about it.
"How did Tobias take it?"
Peter stared down at his clenched hands, head bowed to hide his expression. "Tobias is dead. They found him in the back of the flat. He'd been tortured."
For a few seconds, Sirius could only stare in horrified incomprehension. Then the implications sank in.
"No. She didn't-- she wouldn't have told him."
Lily had told James about Anita's habit of telling Tobias about her missions, and James had confronted Anita in private. It had not, apparently, been a pleasant conversation, but Anita had promised not to do it again, and James hadn't reported her. If she hadn't kept her promise...
"She wouldn't have told him," Sirius repeated stubbornly. "Not about something that big. And even if she did… Tobias wouldn't have talked. He wouldn't give up his wife."
"You don't know what they did to him," Peter said softly. "And I don't know, either, but James… he wouldn't talk about it. Not to me or Remus, not to Lily. And… don't tell him I told you this, okay?" He waited for Sirius' nod before continuing. "Lily says he's been having nightmares, every night since then. He's been sleeping on the couch in the living room, but she could hear him anyway. Screaming and-- and being sick in the toilet afterwards. Whatever Tobias might've told them, it wasn't his fault."
"Not Anita. He wouldn't give up Anita."
"I'm sorry." Peter hauled himself out of the chair with a weary sigh. "I shouldn't have told you. You're not well."
"Come off it, Peter. I'm injured, not mentally deficient. This is all wrong."
"You need to rest. And I need to go and talk to the healers." Peter walked to the door and stopped there, fidgeting. "You know what I keep wondering?" he asked.
"How the Death Eaters knew to go after Tobias in the first place." And then he was gone, before Sirius had a chance to answer.
He didn't get much opportunity to think after that. Healers trooped in and out, muttering spells and pouring additional doses of Skele-Gro down his throat. Nurses came bearing bland hospital food and clean pajamas. A pretty girl in crisp white robes gave him a bed bath, but he was too distracted to properly enjoy it.
James and Lily and Remus visited, first all in a group, then in shifts. Lily brought Harry, who charmed all the nurses and ate the vanilla custard from Sirius' lunch tray. James confirmed Peter's story about the McKinnons, but refused to go into detail. With typical James logic, he had somehow managed to conclude that the whole mess was his fault.
"I should've reported her," he said. "I didn't want to get her into trouble. But any amount of trouble would've been better than this."
"You had no reason to distrust her," Sirius argued. "She made a promise. She knew how big this raid was. She damn well should've known the danger she was putting Tobias in, not to mention all of us. And Tobias -- he had a choice too."
"No, he didn't." James turned a sickly shade of green, as he always did these days whenever Tobias McKinnon was mentioned. "He was only human, Sirius. It wasn't his fault."
People said that a lot.
At night, after the nurses shooed out the visitors and before exhaustion overcame the ache in his bones, he mulled over Peter's question: how did the Death Eaters know to go after Tobias in the first place? How did they know Anita had ever told him anything? Giles and Peter had been there when Lily found out. Lily had told James, and James had grumbled to Sirius and Remus after his talk with Anita. No one else knew. Or at least, no one else was supposed to have known...
Maybe Tobias had let something slip to the neighbors. Maybe someone had eavesdropped when James confronted Anita. Sirius spent hours awake in the dark, pondering the maybes, and the nurses tut-tutted about the dark circles under his eyes.
Three days after he woke up, Sirius limped out of St. Mungo's, with James and Remus serving as human crutches on either side of him. The healers grumbled about it, but they couldn't stop him from going, and he was not about to lie on his back counting the ceiling tiles while everyone else was attending the McKinnons' funeral.
It was a Muggle burial, in a cemetery in Hampstead, where the rest of Tobias' family lived. The two groups of mourners stood apart from each other, watching the coffins being lowered into their adjacent graves, and didn't mix. On one side, Tobias' parents and his sister, some old friends from Cambridge, the barristers he'd worked with at Lincoln's Inn. They all looked confused and shell-shocked. Sirius wondered how much they'd been told, and by whom. On the other side, a crowd of hard-faced Aurors stood in an awkward huddle, looking strangely underdressed in their Muggle suits and dresses. It was an unbearably hot afternoon, the worst they'd had all summer. Sirius had never had any trouble with Muggle clothes before, in fact he preferred them to robes, but that day his bespoke suit felt like a straightjacket, and his tie kept trying to strangle him no matter how often he tugged at the knot. He leaned heavily on Remus' shoulder and fought against the urge to fidget, partly from nerves, partly to relieve the growing ache in his legs and back. His bones had all mended, but he still felt brittle and unsteady, and a few hours on his feet were enough to leave him dizzy with exhaustion.
Somehow, he managed to remain upright long enough to hear the end of the service, and to murmur meaningless condolences to the McKinnons. Remus steered him away as soon as good manners allowed, elbowing a path through the crowd toward the cemetery gate.
"Come on," he whispered, "are you up to Apparating? We'll go straight home."
"I'll manage." Sirius pulled at his tie again. His shirt collar was soaked with sweat. He didn't even care if he splinched himself, he just wanted to get away. "God, I hate this suit."
"You can burn it when we get back," Remus promised. "Let's just get out of si--"
"Mundungus." Remus stopped, which forced Sirius to do the same. "It's good to see you. How's Arabella?"
"Recovering." Mundungus Fletcher stood with his fists clenched at his sides and his head thrust forward at an aggressive angle, looking rather like a hippogriff that had just been mortally insulted. His black suit was about two sizes too large, and the shirt he wore under it was an acidic shade of yellow. Just looking at him made Sirius' head hurt. "She should be out of St. Mungo's in another week or so."
"I'm glad to hear it," Remus said mildly. Fletcher's glare grew even darker.
"Are you, really? I wonder."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Sirius demanded. Fletcher appeared to notice him for the first time.
"Like hell." Sirius tried to take a step forward, but he was relying on Remus for support, and Remus wasn't moving. "You've got a problem with Remus? Come out and say what is, then. Or are you backpedaling because you know you're full of shit?"
"Am I?" Fletcher bared his teeth in an unpleasant grin. "I've just been thinking how quickly everyone jumped to blame Tobias and Anita for what happened. Convenient, I suppose, seeing as how they're dead." He shuffled forward a few steps until he was almost toe to toe with Remus, who continued to stand his ground. "But I can't help remembering that there was someone else who knew about the Channel raid, someone who was supposed to be there and then, somehow, wasn't. Why did you stay away, Lupin? Since when does Black go on missions without you?"
"Despite what some people seem to think," Remus said softly, "Sirius and I are not joined at the hip. As for why I stayed away, that's none of your concern. Albus accepted my reasons."
"The reasons you gave him, you mean."
"They're the only reasons I have." Remus sounded faintly irritated now, which meant he was furious. Sirius would've ducked and ran, hearing that tone directed at him, but Fletcher was oblivious. "And even if I wanted to discuss them with you, now would not be the time. Excuse us, please." And he finally moved, keeping one careful hand under Sirius' elbow as he stepped past Fletcher toward the gate. Fletcher made no move to stop them, but the look on his face was thunderous.
"Haven't read the papers today, have you, Black?" He growled once Sirius and Remus were a few paces away. "If I were you, I'd take a look at the Daily Prophet when I got home."
"What's he blathering about?" Sirius muttered under his breath. "You haven't been in the papers lately, have you, Moony?"
"Haven't you heard?" Remus gave him a sideways look. "I've won Witch Weekly's Most Charming Smile award."
The ducked behind the cemetery wall, out of sight of the Muggles, and Apparated into their living room. By then, Sirius' legs would no longer bend, and the muscles in his lower back had cramped into iron-hard knots. He collapsed sideways onto the couch, growling obscenities and batting irritably at Remus' helpful hands.
"Bugger off, Moony, I can remove my own bloody shoes!"
"Of course you can." Remus shrugged and retreated into the bedroom. A few minutes later he reappeared, having exchanged his suit for a pair of drawstring trousers and a lightweight shirt, and sat down to watch as Sirius struggled to untie his shoelaces without bending his knees.
"Want help with that?" he asked after a while.
"No." Sirius scowled at him. "What I want is to turn Mundungus Fletcher into a cockroach and stomp on him."
Remus raised one eyebrow, but did not dispute the sentiment. "He won't be the last person to say it, you know. He probably isn't even the first -- just the first to do it to my face."
"I know. But given a choice, most people would rather blame me than Anita and Tobias. And honestly, can you blame them?"
"Yes!" Sirius glared furiously at his shoelaces, which, instead of dutifully untying themselves when he pulled, had somehow turned into twin Gordian knots. "Fuck. I hate this. Remus... do you think it was the McKinnons?"
Remus sighed. "I don't know."
"Do you think…" Sirius took a few deep breaths, struggling to put into words the question that had been haunting him for days now. "Do you think any of us would've done it?"
"Talked. If somebody hurt us enough. Tobias adored Anita. And he wasn't weak, or a coward. But he talked. Do you think anyone would?"
"I don't know."
"What if it was James and Lily? Or you and me. Or--"
"Padfoot." Remus knelt next to the sofa, looking up into Sirius' face with frowning concern. "Stop it. I don't know. You don't know. There's only one way to find out, and I hope to God no one we know ever gets faced with that choice again. And you're not going to make anything better by sitting here and brooding about it. Enough." He pulled his wand from his pocket and tapped it lightly against Sirius' shoes. "There, they're untied now. Get out of this stupid suit and get some rest."
An owl hooted loudly outside. Remus glanced over his shoulder at the window.
"Post is here," he said. "I'll get it."
He walked out of the room, and leaving Sirius alone to wrestle with his shoes. They proved to be formidable opponents, but he managed to get them off without help, which partially made up for the defeat with the laces. Sirius sank back onto the sofa pillows and struggled to catch his breath, determined to appear calm and collected when Remus returned with the mail.
But Remus himself looked anything but calm when he reappeared. His face was sickly-pale and his eyes were wide with shock. He was clutching the afternoon edition of the Daily Prophet in one hand, staring fixedly at the front page.
"Remus?" Sirius braced one hand on the back of the sofa and pushed himself up to a sitting position. "What is it, what's wrong?"
Remus just stood there, frozen, until Sirius began to think he hadn't heard. Then he mutely handed over the paper and turned away, hiding his face from Sirius' sight. With a cold, sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Sirius looked down at the front page.
WEREWOLF PACK EXTERMINATED IN YORKSHIRE RAID!
The headline was twice the usual size, and printed in garish red. The article beneath it was more conventionally typeset, but no less lurid.
A pack of three werewolves living on a farm outside York were killed last night, after firing numerous curses and jinxes at a team of Aurors who were attempting to bring them in for questioning. Wilfred Glendon, Lawrence Talbot and Talbot's wife Angela had long been suspected of practicing Dark Arts and collaborating with Him-who-must-not-be-named in a number of violent attacks throughout Yorkshire during the past year. When a team of twelve Aurors arrived at their farm with a search warrant, the werewolves refused to open their door, choosing instead to attack from the inside.
"They were in a frenzy," said Jacob Springer, the leader of the Auror team. "Wild, like beasts. There was no reasoning with them. We had no choice but to fight back."
Following the raid, a search of the house revealed a number of proscribed books and Dark Artifacts, which confirmed the Ministry's suspicion--
The photograph showed a group of grim-looking Aurors standing shoulder to shoulder in front of a perfectly ordinary looking farmhouse. In the background, a pair of white-robed wizards were carrying a body away on a stretcher.
"God, Remus, I'm so sorry." Sirius let the paper fall to the floor. Just the sight of it made him feel ill. "Did you know these people? Were they… were they part of that group you've been meeting with the past few months?"
"I thought I knew them," Remus said in a hollow voice, "but apparently I was wrong. See, I thought they were kind quiet, people who wouldn't hurt a flobberworm. But here are twelve Aurors testifying that they were wild beasts, and Aurors know these things, don't they? Naturally, a group -- sorry, a pack -- of werewolves would behave like frenzied animals, even if it is nineteen days until the next full moon. I don't know what I was thinking."
"I'm sorry," Sirius repeated helplessly. He felt like he should be doing something, but he had no idea what, and Remus still wouldn't look at him. "I don't know the Aurors in the Yorkshire division, but they're obviously all idiots."
"Not to mention murderers." Remus' voice was hard and bitter. Sirius found himself shivering.
"Not now, Sirius." Remus turned and marched out the door, hands clenched at his sides. A few seconds later, the front door squeaked open and then slammed shut.
Sirius looked down at the paper on the floor. Jacob Springer and his team glared back at him. The were holding up books and assorted magical gadgets -- presumably the evidence collected in the raid. The photograph wasn't clear enough for Sirius to make out the details.
"What the hell were you idiots thinking?" Sirius muttered at them. Springer glowered and ran one hand through his hair in a gesture that disturbingly reminded Sirius of James.
Those werewolves had to be innocent. Sirius was sure of it. If they had really been working for Voldemort, Remus would've noticed. It was Remus' job to notice these things. He would've done something.
"I will not spy on my kind, Sirius."
It didn't matter. Remus would've done something.
If he had a choice. If any of them had a choice.
Voldemort can control Dark Creatures from a distance.
If they were innocent, then a team of Aurors had slaughtered three people for no reason. If they weren't innocent… Sirius wasn't sure which thought made him more ill.
Minutes passed. Remus didn't come back. It occurred to Sirius that he was being selfish, sitting there making faces at the paper while Remus was upset. He struggled to his feet using the lamp next to the sofa for support, and took a couple of shaky steps. It proved to be a mistake. His newly-grown leg bones apparently felt that they had fulfilled their duty for the day by holding him up through the funeral, and saw no reason to meet this new and unexpected demand. Halfway across the room, Sirius stopped, wobbled precariously for a moment, and fell forward with a resounding crash.
He heard footsteps, then the door opening and closing, then more footsteps. Remus' scuffed brown shoes came into view and stopped about three inches from Sirius' face.
"Sirius, what do you think you're doing?"
"Looking for you," Sirius mumbled into the carpet. "To see if I could help."
"I see. Thank you, then." The shoes shuffled sideways a little. Strong hands slid under Sirius' arms and hauled him up from the floor. "I'll tell you what, Padfoot -- why don't you get some rest, and then we'll see if you can help, all right?"
Sirius grudgingly allowed himself to be led into the bedroom, bundled into a pair of pajamas, and put to bed in mid-afternoon like a sulky toddler. He even managed to sleep for a few hours. But his dreams were uneasy, and when he woke, all the unpleasant questions were still there.
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