In this proud land we grew up strong, we were wanted all along
I was taught to fight, taught to win
I never thought I could fail
-Don’t Give Up, Peter Gabriel
Chapter Seventeen: September Moon
“So, an Otter, huh?” Lily asked Hermione at breakfast on Friday. Hermione shot a cross look to James, who had suddenly become very engrossed in the action of pouring himself a fresh glass of pumpkin juice. The one side effect she hadn’t predicted was the fact that now her type of Patronus had become common knowledge, something that her DADA classmate had apparently contributed to by boasting.
“Yes, it’s an otter. No, I don’t have a special affection for sea animals,” she recited dutifully, adding, “No, I don’t want to go down to the lake with you to see if there are any living there.”
Sirius’ head shot up and his brow furrowed slightly. “No one asked you that, did they?”
“Overprotective much?” Lily suggested without looking at him.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Sirius said quickly, his ears turning red. His reaction seemed very strange, and Hermione couldn’t quite fathom why. She shook her head in response to his question.
“No, I just added that for shock value,” she admitted.
“That’s my girl,” Lily approved, throwing an arm around Hermione for a quick hug. Just then, Hermione noticed that someone was missing.
“Where’s Remus?” she asked, congratulating herself on the ability to say it without so much as a sign of hesitation anymore. The four others exchanged nervous glances, and Hermione remembered why she’d had some trouble getting to sleep the night before.
“He wasn’t feeling well this morning,” James finally said; Lily feigned surprise and concern at the news. Hermione realized she’d put her new friends in an awkward position, but wasn’t quite sure how to help them out of it.
“But…how will he eat?” she asked as the thought occurred to her.
“Don’t worry,” Sirius assured her, “I’ll take him something—I always do.” Before he even finished saying it, his eyes widened as he realized the importance of the clue. A slow flush started at his collar, and their friends at that end of the table shuffled their food around, not wanting to draw attention to the faux pas. Hermione knew she could smooth it over without appearing as if she had even caught any kind of implication whatsoever.
“He must be grateful to have a friend like you if he turns up ill often,” she said without lifting her eyes from her schoolbook; she was trying to foster the impression that she hadn’t noticed his discomfort.
“He’s worth it,” Sirius blurted out, clearly not even having to think about the declaration at all. Hermione was touched. She looked up from her notes to see Sirius smiling at her; when their eyes met, her stomach did an odd sort of flip-flop and she could feel her own heartbeat. James and Lily began speaking about something else, but still they held their gaze, breaking only when Hermione’s book started to close without the pressure of her hand to hold it open. She didn’t have long to analyze what had just happened, however.
“Charms soon,” reminded Lily. Hermione nodded and started to gather her things as the boys went to discard the morning’s rubbish. Just as she’d hefted her heavy bag to her shoulder, Sirius came up behind her to comment on it.
“That strap is going to break if you keep carrying them all with you everywhere,” he observed.
“No help from you,” she said, turning around to give him a bright smile. He was standing fairly close, and Hermione caught a scent she didn’t quite recognize—so she leaned closer to sniff his shoulder.
Sirius couldn’t have been more delighted to find that this intriguing girl turned out to have been a Gryffindor all along. He was pleased…for Lily’s sake, of course—he couldn’t remember when he’d seen her so happy to have a friend with similar interests. At least, that was what he told himself. It was even better that she seemed to be able to hold her own in their little banter wars—more than hold her own, at times, he admitted. He also told himself that he was lucky she was so studious, or he might be in for trouble…and then she leaned over and sniffed his shoulder.
Wisteria. He could smell it again, and this time there was no mistaking the source. Life is long, he told himself, I’m sure there’s more than one woman whose hair smells like this!That she was the first and only one he’d met so far was beside the point, and not worth dwelling on. This internal dialogue didn’t stop him from taking a deep breath of the fragrance he liked so much, however, now that he had the chance.
“Is she—smelling you, Sirius?” James asked incredulously.
“Appears to be,” he replied gently, not wanting to deafen the girl out of proximity.
“I’m sorry!” she said, sounding a little flustered. “It’s just that I recognized something but I couldn’t figure out where I knew the smell from.” Something in the tone of her voice told Sirius that she wasn’t quite giving the real reason, a suspicion that made him feel a strange sort of warmth deep inside. She was holding something back, he was sure of it—and it might be about him.
“Did you find out what it was?” he asked her in the same gentle voice. She looked up at him to see him looking down at her, and her cheeks took on a reddish tinge. Definitely about me…
“Err—evergreen,” she stated, stepping away from him guiltily.
“Oh,” James said, sounding a little disappointed. “His trunks are packed with the stuff—mum does it. Mine’s done with cedar.” He looked at Sirius and gestured to the great wooden doors with a jerk of his head. “Ready to go?”
“Yes,” Sirius asserted, wrapping a few muffins in a napkin and placing them in a pocket. “Just need to take these to Remus.” As he spoke, he snuck a look at Hermia under his lashes. At the sound of Lupin’s name, her face suffused with a brilliant smile.
“I think it’s lovely that you do that,” she said, echoing her earlier statements. She and Lily then started off in the direction of Professor Flitwick’s classroom, and James gave him a short wave as he headed to his first class.
Definitely not good.
“Is that a herd of elephants or is it Sirius Black with my muffins?” Remus said as Sirius entered their dormitory.
“It’s your hearing, Moony—I tiptoed up the stairs,” he lied.
“You and about five other people,” Lupin said with a grimace, reaching for his breakfast. “They could have been on other floors, however.” He shook his head as Sirius settled himself on the foot of the bed and propped his feet up near Remus’ pillow. “I keep thinking this will get easier, like I’ll get used to it,” he said in a resigned voice.
“You will,” Sirius said, nudging his friend with a stockinged foot. “You still have seventy-odd years to learn how.”
“Yes, if the smell doesn’t kill me first!” Remus swatted at the attacking feet with mock alarm. “What’s wrong?” he asked, seeing his friend take on a faraway look.
“What? Oh, nothing,” Sirius had been thinking about the look on Hermia’s face the times she’d praised him for taking care of Remus. “Our new friend seems to think I’m quite the champion for bringing you breakfast when you’re ill.” He phrased it as though it were a subject change.
“Ah, but is she pleased that I’m being taken care of, or pleased that you’re acting the part of a good friend?” Remus asked, the question barely discernable through a mouth full of food.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” Sirius said without thinking. Remus sat up.
“Do you fancy her?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Sirius answered, truthfully.
“What’s the problem?” Remus questioned, as he fastidiously picked every fallen crumb from his comforter. Sirius knew what the other boy meant—usually if he liked a girl, he asked her out; he’d never vacillated over this kind of decision before.
“I don’t know,” he repeated, and then started over. “She’s not really my type—she’s bookish, and not at all—” he stopped, unsure exactly what he meant.
“Flashy?” Remus supplied with an impish grin that earned him more foot prodding.
“I do not fancy flashy girls!” Sirius protested hotly. “I just meant that—she doesn’t know she’s pretty,” he finished, his ears turning slightly red as he hoped Remus wouldn’t think it was a silly thing to say.
“Well, if you don’t say something when you feel it, Sirius, you may turn out to be too late,” was the disturbing reply.
“What’s that supposed to mean, Remus?” he asked, sitting a little straighter against the bedpost.
Lupin just looked at him oddly. He looked as if he wanted to ask something, wanted really badly to ask it, but all he said was, “Have you been drinking coffee in the mornings again, Sirius? You seem a little on edge.”
“I think you need a long run in the woods, Moony,” Sirius countered, a little frustrated at his friend’s clever deflection of his question but knowing Remus enough not to push.
“We all do,” Lupin said with a sigh. “Go to class, Padfoot.”
“Do you think Mr. Lupin might want my notes from Transfiguration?” Hermione asked at lunch. She tried to phrase it as though she were just interested in his academic welfare and not a personal interest, but it was all in vain—she still earned herself some raised eyebrows from the group. “I just meant, I know he’s not feeling well, and none of you lot seem like avid note-takers…” her voice trailed off.
“First of all, it’s ‘Remus,’ Hermia—you were doing so well this morning,” James said, emphasizing the fact that they were all on a first-name basis.
“Duly noted, James,” Hermione said, rallying a little. “I think I phrased that earlier bit just a little off—”
“You phrased it just fine,” laughed Peter, interrupting her.
“I would do the same for any of you!” she protested.
“I’d stop, before you put your foot in,” Lily said with a cheeky grin.
“Oh!” Hermione huffed in despair, giving up and putting her head down rather harshly on her Arithmancy book. The pressure proved too much for her hair knot, and it gave way in an impressive display that mirrored her current emotions.
“Now, that is an exclamation point, ladies and gentlemen,” Sirius announced in admiration.
“You’re all against me,” Hermione said in a miserable tone that was muffled by her contact with the table.
“No, we’re not,” Peter protested.
“If you want to take care of Remus, we’d be glad to help you,” goaded James, who earned a sharp pinch from Lily for his contribution.
“If you knew what the Bat-Bogey Hex was, you’d be watching what you say right now,” Hermione threatened in a slightly clearer voice.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Peter said seriously.
“You’re right,” James agreed. “We should probably lay off about—” Hermione’s head popped up “—everything.” Sirius leaned away from his friend, clearly trying to avoid the blast zone.
“Sic him, Hermia!” he encouraged.
She shook her head, adding ominously, “Nah, there’d be too much collateral damage,” she said, raising an eyebrow.
“I think an apology is in order?” James gulped.
“No, it’s all right,” Hermione said expansively. “You needed a good indication of how far you could go before I snap.” At the word ‘snap,’ she shut her book with a sharp crack, causing the hazel-eyed boy to jump.
Sirius Black found that he was starting to have a lot more respect for bookish females.
“So, are you coming tonight, Sirius?” James asked with a sidelong glance at Hermione—obviously hoping that it was all right for him to start up conversation. Sirius just stared at him, however, and Hermione wondered what Harry’s dad could be thinking—clearly Sirius couldn’t answer a question like that in front of her.
“Uh…” Sirius was buying time.
“For Quidditch? Tryouts are tonight, I thought you said you’d come watch?” Hermione couldn’t help letting out a giggle as the tension of the moment drained away. Sirius groaned, however.
“Haven’t you been hounded for the whole week with questions about it?” he asked in a voice that pretty much said, ‘what can I do to get out of this?’
“If you need an audience, I can come watch,” Hermione offered on the spur of the moment.
“I thought you hated flying,” Sirius said, all but clapping his hand over his mouth when he realized what he’d done.
“Lily!” Hermione said, stamping her foot in annoyance.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to tell him,” Lily said contritely. “It’s just that I remembered that you had said it when we saw the class on the lawn outside of Herbology.”
“Yeah, that’ll make her feel better,” Sirius whispered to Lily with obvious sarcasm.
“I knew people could see us from through those windows!” Hermione covered her face with her hands and put her head back down on the table, her voice starting to gain the high-pitched tone that showed her distress.
“All we could see were shapes—moving, blurry shapes,” Lily said, trying to console her.
“Right,” Hermione piped up from between her fingers, “and one very slowly moving shape.”
“Well, it’s very hard to fly and study at the same time,” James said reaching out to pat her hand comfortingly. “Next time you should probably leave the book behind.” All of them heard a cough that sounded suspiciously like a giggle from behind the barrier of hair that had fallen around Hermione’s face when she put her head down.
“Enough with the patting!” she finally said, lifting her head and snatching her hand back, as James hadn’t ceased when he’d finished speaking. “Shouldn’t you be harassing people to join the Gryffindor Quidditch Team?” she asked pointedly. James just grinned at her.
“I have plenty wanting to join, I just need to make sure they’re the best fliers,” he stood up as he was speaking and playfully punched Sirius on the shoulder for emphasis. “Walk me to the pitch, Lily?” he asked, his tone of voice altering from playful to respectful so subtly that Hermione would bet he didn’t even notice. Lily did, however.
“Of course,” she said, standing and bestowing a loving smile. “You didn’t think you could keep me away, did you?”
The day was coming to a close, and Sirius’ stomach was a ball of excitement as he walked up the stairs to put his things away. Remus was already gone, his bed still warm. A bit of disturbed blanket at the end of the bed indicated that he’d had a visitor. Sirius leaned over to touch the spot, sending a mental ‘thank you’ to the Headmaster for his yearly ritual.
Albus Dumbledore made sure to be the one to escort Remus to his confinement on the first full moon of the school year—had been doing so ever since First Year. Sirius was certain that he did it both from a deep caring for the boy, but also as a means of reassuring him that not only did the faculty know of his condition, they approved of his attendance. Sirius knew Remus better than anybody, and he wished he could tell the professor just how much this meant to Remus—and himself. It was easy for Remus to tell himself that the love of a few of his peers was enough, but the reaffirmation of Professor Dumbledore’s caring each year had a profound impact on the way his friend saw himself.
He knew just how important it was that the adults in one’s life approved and cared for you. The past summer spent with James’ parents had been the most fulfilling (and amusing) time he’d ever spent away from Hogwarts. Instead of the constant bickering and criticism such as that in his own family, the Potters lived their lives in happiness, and had been more than pleased to accept him into their home as a second son.
The biggest gift they’d given him—besides their love, a roof over his head, and good home-cooked meals—was the gift of being able to life his life on his own terms. Not that he had spent the summer doing whatever he wanted, but for all that Sirius was popular and energetic and talented, he also needed time to himself. Time that his mother had delighted in denying him. During the summers he’d spent in the Black home he would get so keyed up and anxious from the lack of power that it often took him a month or more to regain control of himself once he’d gotten back to school. During the worst of those times came a trick played on Snape and Remus…
Sirius didn’t allow himself to dwell on the past. Once he’d left the environs of the Black family he had told himself that he was a new person, without the baggage of the past to drag him down to the dark places. He had new memories to make, new ties to forge, and the summer spent with the Potters had been everything he’d dreamed of, and more.
And tonight, he would spend the evening with the three best friends a bloke could have.
He’d been looking forward to this for a month. Sirius had begun a tradition the year before of not allowing himself to transform for a full month before school began. It was his way of reminding himself of how he had learned to do it, and more importantly, why. It had taken a great deal of self-control this year, for the Potters lived on a large plot of land bordering a wood—the many different deer he’d seen over the course of that summer made him understand where James had come up with his stag.
The only thing that Sirius regretted was the inability to explain to others how exhilarating the transformation was, how amazing it felt to be in a different form. He would have loved to be able to talk over the finer points of ‘animagus theory’ with Professor McGonagall, for example. The secrecy was important, however. Just as being a werewolf was a socially reprehensible thing, so was breaking the law—and he, James, and Peter had done just that by becoming animagi without telling anyone. He liked to think that this gave Remus the feeling that they were somewhat on the same grounds as he.
Sirius had reached the clearing in front of the Whomping Willow by the time he was finished with his reverie. As he approached the top of the low hill, he saw the majestic figure of James’ stag, his head lifted to the sky. The intricate weaving of antlers looked like fingers reaching up to the moon, the glowing orb not yet visible but shrouded in clouds. Peter stood next to James, scratching him behind an ear with an amused expression on his face.
“You’re spoiling the silhouette,” Sirius whispered with laughter in his voice.
“You know how he gets,” Peter whispered back.
“Yeah, that one spot riiiight behind one ear,” Sirius reached over to demonstrate. James lifted a hoof and brushed the ground gently, unable to communicate in any other way.
“We should get going,” Peter said. “It’ll be coming out from behind those clouds any minute now.” Sirius nodded.
From a distance, an observer would have seen two figures running with obvious joy toward the dangerous outline of the Whomping Willow. The dog raced in circles around the loping stag, coming quite close to his hooves at times but never close enough to trip them up. Far ahead of them, the wavering branches of the Willow became quite still, for the third member of their party had run ahead to make a safe path for the others.
As they reached the trunk, the stag reared back and tore the air with his hooves, making an impressive tableau with his antlers against the cloudy sky before melting away to a human form that crawled through the tunnel to rejoin his companions.