It was almost midnight, and Remus had given up on trying to get the celebrating Gryffindors to party a little more quietly. He sank into an armchair and glanced across the common room at James, who, remarkably, had fallen asleep on the couch immediately upon getting back from the match. It wasn't like him, especially since it had been his heroic save that had won Gryffindor the game, and which the jubilant team was now re-enacting with Sirius, his longish hair bewitched to stand on end, playing the part of James.
Remus frowned. Come to think of it, James had been acting awfully strange lately —sneaking away during breaks, usually accompanied by Peter or Sirius, and none of them had been forthcoming about their activities. They would always come back exhausted, and Peter seemed more panicked than ever, as if studying for a particularly nasty test. Perhaps it was only OWL pressure getting to them. The teachers had certainly been piling on the homework in preparation for the exams, but most of the students weren't that worried (they had until June, after all), and James and Sirius definitely weren't the type to let a silly thing like OWLs faze them.
James had also had training to worry about, though. The team had practiced extra hard for this match, and James had been showing the strain, staggering into the dorm still muddy from the field and collapsing into his four-poster without removing his trainers.
But Sirius, who Remus was sure had never broken a sweat in his life, had seemed almost equally preoccupied. They'd been seen slipping off into empty classrooms late at night with armloads of advanced textbooks — NEWT-level and beyond — and at least once Sirius had ended up in the hospital wing with what was rumored to be a severe case of uncontrolled hair growth. There was little doubt they were planning something massive, and Peter was in on it.
Peter was also not participating in the celebration, but that was normal. While he always tried to be part of the crowd, the poor guy couldn't handle so much noise and invariably ended up huddled in a corner drawing up star charts; it helped him calm down. Thanks to Peter, Remus had advanced notice of every full moon for the next few centuries. He looked around, and, sure enough, Peter was bent over a new chart, his quill zipping agitatedly across the parchment. He kept pausing, looking across the room at James, and chewing nervously on his lip as if trying to decide something. Remus stood up and went to sit next to him.
"What's up? Did you want to ask James something?" Remus guessed.
Peter looked down and mumbled something about needing help with his Transfiguration. Remus raised an eyebrow. "Is it something I can help with?" he offered. Peter turned pink and shook his head.
"It's… it's… he's been helping me," Peter said very quickly.
"I'll see if I can wake him up," Remus said, then stood up and crossed the room. He would have been offended that Peter wouldn't accept his help, if he wasn't so sure that Peter wasn't telling the whole truth. Still, he knew that when his friends were planning some mischief, it was generally safest to let them be. Besides, if he really did know what was going on, he'd feel obligated as a prefect to report them, which of course he would never do.
He nudged James on the shoulder, and James groaned, batting his hand away groggily. "Wake up," Remus said, poking harder, but James wouldn't stir.
"Let him sleep," Sirius said from behind Remus, startling him. "He needs his beauty rest like all of us. Except me, maybe." Sirius grinned, his hair still standing straight up.
"I'd love to, but Peter over there is probably going to have kittens if he doesn't get his Transfiguration help."
Sirius looked from Remus to Peter, and then seemed to come to a decision. "Well, I'll go over it with him. You're going… you know, to 'visit your mother' again, aren't you?"
Remus raised an eyebrow, taken aback by the change of subject. "Yeah, tomorrow night," he confirmed.
"Then you best get your own beauty rest tonight, or you'll be a fright come Monday," Sirius said, clapping Remus on the shoulder and then going to where Peter was still furiously scribbling away. Remus watched them gather up Peter's books and walk out through the portrait hole, ignoring the fact that it was hours past curfew. The party had calmed down considerably, and most of the younger students had gone to bed, so Remus cast one more look around the room in an effort not to be such a huge disappointment as a prefect, and then went to the dormitories himself. He had a feeling he was going to miss something terribly exciting this coming full moon, and he wasn't sure whether to be relieved or disappointed.
Remus woke with a start in the dead of night to the sound of the dormitory door creaking open. By moonlight he recognized the shadowy figures of Peter and Sirius sneaking quietly in. He thought about pretending to be asleep, then sat up suddenly. Peter was so startled by the movement that he stumbled and knocked over Remus's desk lamp. They both reached over at the same time to pick it up and their heads collided painfully. Sirius tried unsuccessfully to stifle a guffaw while they rubbed their heads and winced.
"Sorry!" Peter whispered, cringing at his own clumsiness, but Remus couldn't help but notice a hint of glee behind his friend's embarrassment as he replaced the lamp. Peter seemed to be trying to hide a huge, proud grin, akin to the one he wore whenever he was praised by a teacher — or, for that matter, whenever he'd got anything resembling a compliment from James or Sirius. And it was clear that he was dying to tell why; Peter so rarely got anything right that when he did, he never wanted it to go unnoticed.
Remus tried to repress his curiosity, telling himself that he'd find out after he got back from his transformation in the Shack. "It's no problem," he muttered, and rolled over in bed, pulling the covers around him tightly. He heard the shuffling and shifting sounds of two boys preparing quickly for bed, and then a long time of silence before he was able to quiet his mind enough to fall asleep.
Remus was the first one to wake that morning, and decided to beat the morning rush by going straight to the library. He had to do what studying he could before leaving, since he certainly couldn't bring any books where he was going — they'd be in shreds by morning, and Madame Pince was one of the many staff members who had clearly been reluctant to go along with Dumbledore's plan to let him attend Hogwarts. She was always scrutinizing any books he'd so much as looked at, writing referrals for any scratched cover or the slightest tear in the corner of a page, even if the book had been tattered and worn long before Remus got hold of it. Remus had learned Reparo before anyone else in his year, and tried to remember to magically fix anything that was scratched or nicked, but still the pursed-lipped librarian always had her suspicious, accusing eyes on him.
When he got to the library, he ducked under Madame Pince's piercing glare as he passed her desk and retreated to his usual table in the very back corner. He walked past Severus Snape, the only other student studying this early on a Sunday, and the Slytherin's beady eyes followed him for a moment before looking back at his heavily-marked Potions textbook. It was no secret that Snape didn't like Remus, though few people really knew why, beyond the blood-bigotry and house rivalry that all the Slytherins were known for. Still, the two were forced to endure each other, as Slughorn had paired up the two of them in Potions class. It was his policy to seat the exemplary students next to average ones, though far from achieving the intended goal of having them help each other, between Snape and Remus it seemed only to create more tension, which Slughorn never seemed to notice. Remus was just glad to be in his fifth year, the last year that he would be required to take Potions.
He sank down into a chair with a sigh and pulled out a random textbook, hiding behind it without really reading. Alright, perhaps his reasons for hiding away in the library weren't entirely academic, he admitted to himself. He was bothered by his friends' secrecy. He missed them when they went off without him, but knew too well the value of privacy to say it to their faces. However, the thought of facing them seemed rather more daunting than spending the morning alone; after all, he had much more experience being alone than he had in dealing with friends. At least he could count on these books not to judge or reject him.
Remus frowned. After five years, he was still afraid of rejection. After being accepted as a werewolf, could he really expect his friends to be offended by him asking questions? Then again, he couldn't help being a werewolf, and they knew that.
He sighed. Could he any more help being curious, and wanting to be included?
And could they help being mistrustful of him, since as a prefect he had to report any rule-breaking? Even if he was a lousy prefect anyway.
He closed the book he was still holding in front of his face, and stood up, looking up and down the shelves around him for a distraction. He was in the Transfiguration section, and suddenly remembered a book that Professor McGonagall had mentioned, Bestia Animi, which he had wanted to look up. He scanned the shelves for the title, feeling a slight lift now that he had a goal.
It wasn't there. He looked over the shelves again, and noticed that several spaces were empty; at one point, several books had been removed and several others, unsupported, had fallen over. Remus looked around surreptitiously, and then lifted the books back into place.
Just then, he heard a rustling of papers and turned around just in time to see Snape gathering up his books and shuffling away in a hurry. A moment later, a voice whistling a jaunty tune preceded the appearance of James Potter, levitating a hefty stack of books, his wand held at an insolent angle. He caught sight of Remus and grinned.
"All right, Moony?" he said, flawlessly guiding the books with his wand into each of the empty spaces on the shelf. When the last one was put away, he gave the wand a twirl between his fingers and slipped it into his back pocket. "Is this where you've been all morning? You weren't in the dormitory when we woke up."
Remus nodded. "You slept enough then?" he asked.
"Heh," James laughed. "Sorry I was so conked out last night. You know how it's been, with practice and all."
"And studying?" Remus pointed out, with a glance at the newly-shelved books.
James looked almost embarrassed, and ran a hand over the back of his hair, making it stand even more on end. "Yeah, well, OWLs and all."
"Right," Remus said. "OWLs."
"Well," James said, perking up, "I've got some books to track down before Pince gets on my arse. I'll see you tonight," he added with a wink, and was sauntering off between the shelves before Remus could open his mouth to say that he wouldn't be in the common room tonight. James must have lost track of the time; understandable, with how busy he had been. But somehow Remus had always suspected that whatever the three of them had been planning was specifically timed to coincide with his absence. Sirius's conspicuous mention last night was one clue. Was he reading too much into it?
He glanced once more at the books James had just put away, and caught sight of Bestia Animi. It was hanging off the shelf by an inch. He reached out to pick it up, then changed his mind and pushed it back so it was flush with the others. He went back to the table and packed up his books to leave.
The trap door shut with a clack behind Madam Pomfrey, leaving Remus quite alone. He stood for a moment with his hands shoved deep into his pockets, staring at that trap door. Then he went to sit down in a nearby chair, which suddenly fell over, dumping him on the floor.
"What the…?" he said, rubbing his elbow where he had bumped it on the floor. Then he noticed that one of the legs of the chair had been gnawed right off. He scrambled to his feet and turned his back on the reminder, approaching one of the boarded-up windows. There was a tiny crack between two boards that afforded a view of the darkening sky outside; the moon would be out soon, and he knew what would happen then.
He had heard the rumors that this shack was haunted, and though he knew they were inspired by shrieks and howls which did not come from any ghost, he couldn't help but agree; this place was haunted, not by ghosts but by the memories of the past five years, trapped alone with the monster he knew he would become. The horror of meeting a werewolf, he knew, was nothing compared with the horror of being one, of facing not just the fear and suspicion of others, but the fear of escaping and hurting someone, the fear of losing one's mind and body to a beast of such vileness. Earlier he had been afraid of losing his friends; was it even right for him to have friends, and risk exposing them to himself? For their sake, it was best for him to be alone.
There was a sound behind him, and he turned around; something was bumping against the trap door from below, making it rattle. Did Madam Pomfrey come back to tell him something? Or was it someone else, someone who didn't know what might await them on the other side?
"Go away!" Remus shouted, his voice cracking with panic, but the rattling continued. He again looked out at the sliver of sky he could see through the window, then took a step toward the trap door, meaning to block it somehow. But before he could reach it, it flew open and a huge animal with glistening teeth and enormous paws bounded up through the opening. A werewolf! Remus thought, and he tripped on his feet trying to run away while the beast ran toward him. He fell down on the floor and flung his arms up to shield himself, but soon found himself looking straight into its dripping maw, bracing himself to feel the teeth tearing open his flesh.
But instead, he felt the warm wetness of the huge floppy tongue licking his face all over. His eyes wide with surprise, Remus realized it wasn't a werewolf that was pinning him down, but a big, black, shaggy dog. The dog leaped aside with a canine grin, allowing Remus to get unsteadily to his feet. Then, as if his racing heart needed more surprises, the dog turned into Sirius. Remus gaped at his friend's smiling face.
"Sorry if I scared you," Sirius said. "We wanted to surprise you."
"Well, you did," Remus said faintly, then paused. "Wait. We?"
"Oh yeah, they're here too," Sirius said, motioning toward the open trap door. As Remus watched, a big fat rat scurried through and turned into Peter. What looked like a huge stag followed — however, the stag's wide antlers wouldn't fit through the opening, and the sight of the snagged stag was so funny that Remus couldn't help bursting into laughter, along with Sirius and Peter. When the stag turned into James and clambered up into the room, he was laughing the hardest of all.
"You!" Remus laughed. "So this is what you've been doing with all those Transfiguration books! Turning into animals!"
"Not just that," James said. "We're Animagi now. We can do this whenever we want."
Remus stared in wonder. That was frighteningly advanced magic for kids who hadn't even got through OWLs. He opened his mouth to congratulate them, but instead asked, "Why?"
His friends laughed. "Why else? For you!" James said.
"For me?" Remus repeated, perplexed.
"We felt bad for you, up here alone every month," Sirius said.
"We know how much you hate it," Peter added. "And we can't keep you company as humans, so we figured we'd do it as animals."
Remus stared, at a loss for words. They were right, of course: he couldn't hurt them if they transformed into animals. But how much work it must have been, and how much harder to keep it a secret! It was a dangerous project to undertake, and he knew that they would be in big trouble if anyone found out that they had become Animagi without registering. All that to keep him company?
He stared, trying to think of words big enough to express his thanks, but couldn't think of any. Then he suddenly remembered where he was, and spun around to look again through the window.
"The moon's coming out," he said nervously, half expecting that his friends would change their minds and be back out the trap door before he could turn around. But when he looked, there they still were, nodding and turning back into their animal forms. He smiled, and as he began to feel his body changing, for the first time in his life he wasn't afraid; after all, for the first time in his life, he wasn't alone.