A/n: Written for January's Writer's Duel. I hope you like it!
BANG. BANG. BANG.
There was that loud, annoying banging again. It was coming from the room next door, where those red-headed twin hellions, who reminded him so poignantly of two best friends, lived and experimented and pranked. That loud, annoying banging, which materialized nearly every twenty minutes for the first two weeks of the summer break from Hogwarts classes, had kept him awake nearly around the clock. And awake was something the rat named Scabbers and the human named Peter Pettigrew endeavored to avoid at all costs. His daily existence, for it couldn’t fairly be called life, as a rat was mind-numbing enough to drive him to slumber on its own but there was a deeper reason for his refusal to stay awake; one he would hardly even admit to himself.
He slept because he couldn’t bear remembering.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
Peter frowned at the knock sounding on his door. It was late and he hadn't heard anything about anyone coming by his crumbling little apartment with its cracked walls and uninviting hand-me-down interior. It was in an area that wasn't quite what a reasonable person would call dodgy but was heading that way and quickly. Most people would not be caught here after dark unless they were of the kind that one ought to be afraid of. Even the muggles here were dangerous, though not as dangerous as his new and powerful "friends". The very thought of them shot a powerful pang of cold down his spinal cord, like the feeling of striking a nerve directly. He hoped that the particular someone at his door wasn't one of those, even as a knocking sounded again.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
He clutched at his wand, keeping it concealed in the folds of his cloak. He approached skittishly, his feet hardly leaving the floor as he walked, before his finally reached the eye piece to see the person outside. Peter started a little when he spied James, leaning heavily on the door frame.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
James knocked again, shivering against some of the unseasonable coldness of this year’s mid-October. He looked exhausted, but there was an edge to it that even Peter, who had known him all these years, did not fully understand. He fumbled as he went for the lock and the chain that held the outside world outside where it belonged. His fingers seemed to him thicker and more clumsy than ever before but soon the faded, chipping door swung open, seemingly of its own accord.
James looked surprised that it gave way, but ushered himself in quickly, not even pausing to ask Peter if he could be admitted. He didn’t say a word as he went around brusquely, casting protection and anti-listening charms so powerful that Peter could feel them crackling against his skin. The magic was so strong and so distracting that it was all Peter could do to close the door and bolt it once more behind him.
Then suddenly, he held James’s attention. His friend rounded on him and asked in a hurried and hushed tone, “When we were twelve, where did you hide when I got caught magically greasing the stairs of the dungeons so the Slytherins would be beaten as badly as you that day?”
Peter gulped, and managed to stammer, “Be- behind the statue of Alvain the Avid. I was just barely small enough to get into that corner.”
James nodded and then collapsed onto Peter’s old sofa that had once been his great aunt’s and had seen better days. Peter wondered fleetingly if it would hold out much longer. He quickly forced his attention back to his old friend. Peter swallowed again to clear his throat and then ventured, “J-james? Not that I don’t appreciate the visit, but why are you here?”
James looked at him sharply, with his eyes fixed on Peter keenly, “You haven’t heard?”
Peter shook his head. Whatever it was, he didn’t know about it. Not if it was big enough to warrant all of this interest in protection spells.
James looked pale, the circles under his eyes appeared darker as the blood rushed out of his face. “They’re after us. Lily and Harry and I. He is going to try and kill him. He’s going to kill my son.”
Peter didn’t know what to do. He settled, uncertainly, on shaking his head again. “James, I – I don’t—”
“Dumbledore has arranged for protection but we need your help.” The practicality of that statement seemed to be what James was holding onto – this plan of action to save Harry.
Peter’s brow furrowed in confusion, “Me?” His voice almost squeaked as he said it, the rat in him taking over just a bit. James didn’t seem to notice. Instead, he nodded.
“Yes, Peter,” James answered, smiling sadly at the self-deprecation inherent in Peter’s question. “We need a secret keeper.”
“No. No, James. Not me. Sirius. Or Remus,” Peter suggested quickly. He couldn’t handle this. He couldn’t be that. Not with what he had just done. He pulled down nervously on the sleeve of his shirt that covered his left arm; he was conscious that though there was no mark there, he still belonged to another side. A stronger side.
“We can’t,” James responded, shaking his head matter-of-factly, “Everyone will expect Remus or Sirius. They’ll go after them first. Don’t you see? Dumbledore will be able to hide you too. We can move to protect you before the other side realizes what we have done.” The tone of his voice had changed into something that Peter didn’t recognize – something that he had never heard before. Gone was the confident, sometimes haughty tone of his friend. Here, before him, was a desperate man, with hoarse words that cracked a little if pushed. “Please, Peter. My friend. We need you. Lily and I need you to help us protect him. Help me protect my son.”
James met his eyes with such sincerity and depth of emotion that Peter would have given anything to undo what was done. He couldn't even remember a circumstance wherein James had ever requested, required or even desired his help. He was the one who had depended on them – on his friend’s superior strength and eventually on Lily’s. Now, he had this power. This choice.
No. Choice wasn't the right word for it. Not really. Two weeks ago, when he'd just considered with the idea of switching his allegiance, he had had a choice. When nothing was said and when nothing was done. Before he moved toward more powerful friends. Now he was stuck in the role he had unwittingly cast for himself. A betrayer. A Judas. A Brutus. A rat in a trap.
He knew, of course, that the Dark Lord had cast spells more powerful than James’s protection charms. Spells that heard every word spoken and saw every movement. He knew that he would be punished for even suggesting others for the role of the secret keeper. And he knew that no matter how much he wanted to refuse to save his friend, the line had already been drawn in the sand before he knew it what was happening. He was a pawn in a game of knights and kings.
His eyes welled up with tears for what it would cost him to do this to his childhood companion. The only one who had repeatedly rescued him from the bullying of some of the very Slytherins he had allied himself with now. The one who had tutored him through the worst of Transfiguration and helped him to become the Animagus that he was. His heart felt as though it were being squeezed into a space for too small for it to beat. The constriction was making it hard to breathe and harder to think. He didn’t want any of this. He didn’t want this role. But it had come to him and now it ached and gnawed and crawled around under his skin.
He looked at James and nodded, “Of course, my friend. Anything for Prongs.” His voice trailed off with a little uncomfortable laugh as his throat dried up. His stomach and intestines felt as if they were wringing themselves out of his gut. The whirring of his fear came buzzing into his ears. Not for himself. For the first time, his fear expanded to include this man before his and his young family who were most certainly going to die. This was not how his life was supposed to have gone.
James took Peter’s symptoms in and labeled them nerves because of the enormous task set before him and thumped him on the shoulder, just once. There was not a trace of doubt in his features when he assured him, “It will come right in the end, Peter. We’re going to make it out of this.”
Peter, for his part, wished fervently that that were true.
Scabbers, when he did remember, tried to step away from the rest of the events that had occurred after this moment. He pretended that things had not spun so wildly out of control from the day he agreed to become secret keeper. He selectively forgot that he had taken this information to the Dark Lord, who had acted on it. He forgot that his friend, who had trusted him implicitly with his life, had died on the threshold of his home, protecting what had mattered most to him. He forgot that Sirius had figured it all out and come looking for him on the streets that day, fueled by the howling, snarling, biting anger of betrayal and a shot of fire whiskey. He forgot that Remus, now bereft of three friends, wandered alone and incapable of keeping a job in their world. But mostly, he tried to forget how Harry Potter, the boy who lived, was the best friend of his “owner.”
The thing that struck him most, when he looked back, was that James hadn’t truly known him well enough to see it written on his face. Peter was under no illusions of grandeur. He knew that he could not have fooled Dumbledore, or even the Dark Lord, who was far less perceptive in some ways. How then did he fool the man who had been his friend since he was eleven? Had James ever really known him?
He knew that he had latched on to these powerful boys to protect himself. He knew that he was weak, a coward. But he had never known why they kept him around. In his waking hours, it was what haunted him most of all. Had any of them really known who he was? Or had they been so preoccupied that they just ignored that he followed them, idolized them? Did any of them ever really see him?
BANG. BANG. BANG.
Peter shifted his small rat head farther under the pillow so as not to hear that infernal noise so directly. It was too strong for his sensitive ears to manage. That was the thing about his life. He had surrounded himself with powerful people and forces too strong to control. And, much to his continued sorrow, far too strong to ever let him forget.