I shivered, and it wasn't the cold – my jeans and Weasley sweater took care of that. The problem was that a completely innocent creature was going to be executed for taking a swipe at Malfoy. Buckbeak was not a dangerous animal no matter what the Ministry said. He was a sweetheart – I would know, I'd spent several free periods with him recently.

Animals were sensitive to people's emotions. Despite how Hagrid tried to keep himself together, Buckbeak could tell something was wrong. He was nervous and twitchy, but still just as sweet as usual. I spent time trying to keep Buckbeak calm while Hermione read old court cases about magical animals and tried to figure out how to get the hippogriff off.

But in the end it was all for nothing. Here we were, sitting in Hagrid's cabin while he tried his best not to burst into tears in front of us. I knew how he felt – I was trying not to cry too. I fisted my hands on my knees. I was really regretting I hadn't slugged Malfoy with Hermione earlier.

"Wan' some tea?" Hagrid asked, and that nearly did me in. His hands were shaking with sadness but he was still trying to make us feel welcome.

"Where's Buckbeak, Hagrid?" asked Hermione hesitantly instead of answering.

"I-," Hagrid swallowed thickly before continuing, "I took him outside." He spilled milk all over the table as he tried to fill up the jug. "He's tethered in me pumpkin patch. Thought he oughta see the trees an' – an' smell fresh air – before-"

Hagrid's hands trembled so violently that the milk jug slipped from his grasp and shattered all over the floor. I flinched at the loud sound. Loud sounds didn't have any place in this cabin right now, just quiet sadness.

"I'll do it, Hagrid," said Hermione quickly, jumping up. I pulled out my wand and flicked it at the ceramic shards on the ground, watching as they gathered themselves up and dropped into the rubbish bin.

"There's another one in the cupboard," Hagrid said, sitting down heavily and wiping his forehead on his sleeve. Harry glanced at Ron, who looked back hopelessly. I reached out and caught my brother's hand under the table. Harry squeezed supportively and offered me a tiny, weak smile. It wasn't much, but it lifted my spirits a little.

"Isn't there anything anyone can do, Hagrid?" Harry asked fiercely. "Dumbledore-"

"He's tried," said Hagrid in frustration. He felt helpless and it was easy to guess why. "He's got no power ter overrule the Committee. He told 'em Buckbeak's all right, but they're scared...Yeh know what Lucius Malfoy's like...threatened 'em, I expect... an' the executioner, Macnair, he's an old pal o' Malfoy's...but it'll be quick an' clean...an' I'll be beside him..."

I tightened my hand so hard around Harry's that he winced and began trying to worm his fingers free. "That's not good enough," I said venomously. "Malfoy deserves more than a sock in the jaw for what he's done, and I'll make sure that he gets it!"

Hagrid swallowed. His eyes were darting all over the cabin as though looking for some shred of hope or comfort. "No, no, Rena," he chided. "I don't wan' yeh getting' inter trouble. Dumbledore's gonna come down while it - while it happens. Wrote me this mornin. Said he wants ter - ter be with me. Great man, Dumbledore..."

Hermione, who had been rummaging in Hagrid's cupboard for another milk jug, let out a small, quickly stifled sob. She straightened up with the new jug in her hands, fighting back tears. I was right there with her.

"We'll stay with you too, Hagrid," she began, but I knew that wouldn't happen even before Hagrid shook his head.

"Yeh're ter go back up ter the castle. I told yeh, I don' wan' yeh watchin'. An' yeh shouldn' be down here anyway... If Fudge an' Dumbledore catch yeh out without permission, Harry and L'rena, yeh'll be in big trouble."

Silent tears were now streaming down Hermione's face, but she hid them from Hagrid, bustling around making tea. Then, as she picked up the milk bottle to pour some into the jug, she let out a shriek.

"Ron, I don't believe it – it's Scabbers!"

I knew all about the Scabbers Incident. Harry had filled me in, but the entirety of the school was well aware of the face that Hermione's cat had eaten Ron's rat, and that Ron wasn't forgiving her for it. I was one of the ones who'd listened to Hermione sob about how she was sure Crookshanks hadn't done anything, then about how she wished Ron would forgive her, and finally about what an idiot Ron Weasley was.

Ron gaped at her incredulously and I stood up, hurrying to Hermione's side. She offered the milk jug to me. I peered inside. Sure enough, huddled against the ceramic, was a distinctively-battered garden rat, missing hair and toe and all.

"What are you talking about?" Ron demanded.

I carried the milk jug over to the table and turned it upside down. With a frantic squeak and much scrambling to get back inside, Scabbers the rat came sliding out onto the table with a thunk.

"Scabbers!" said Ron blankly. "Scabbers, what are you doing here?"

He grabbed the struggling rat and held him up to the light. Scabbers looked dreadful. He was thinner than ever, large tufts of hair had fallen out leaving wide bald patches, and he writhed in Ron's hands as though desperate to free himself.

"It's okay, Scabbers!" Ron insisted. "No cats! There's nothing here to hurt you!"

Hagrid suddenly stood up, his eyes fixed on the window. His normally ruddy face had gone the color of parchment.

"Disagree," I said softly.

"They're comin'..." Hagrid whispered hoarsely.

We all turned to the window. A group of men was walking down the distant castle steps. In front was Albus Dumbledore, his silver beard gleaming in the dying sun. Next to him trotted Cornelius Fudge in his bowler hat. Behind them came the feeble old Committee member and the executioner, Macnair.

"Yeh gotta go," said Hagrid, suddenly frantic. Every inch of him was trembling. "They mustn' find yeh here...Go now..."

Ron stuffed Scabbers into his pocket and Hermione picked up the cloak. "I'll let yeh out the back way," said Hagrid. I grabbed his arm roughly.

"It'll be okay, Hagrid," I insisted. "I don't know how, but it will."

Hagrid gave me a watery smile. "Ah, L'rena, I wish that were true."

We followed him to the door into his back garden. It felt unreal, seeing Buckbeak a few yards away, tethered to a tree behind Hagrid's pumpkin patch. In a few minutes, he would be dead. Buckbeak seemed to know something was happening. He turned his sharp head from side to side and pawed the ground nervously.

"It's okay, Beaky," said Hagrid softly. "It's okay..." He turned to us. "Go on," he urged. "Get goin'."

They didn't move. I did. I heard them offering to help Hagrid, offering to tell what had actually happened. It was hopeless at this point, and they were wasting time that could have been used for something more important. Like a last goodbye.

Buckbeak was used to me after all of my visits. Next to Hagrid, I was his favorite person. I barely had to incline my head before Buckbeak dipped his own back and let me move closer. I cupped his massive head between my palms and tilted my own down. I pressed my forehead to Buckbeak's, my nose brushing the top of his beak.

"You are wonderful, Buckbeak, and it's absolutely monstrous what they're going to do," I whispered hotly to the hippogriff. Buckbeak blinked back at me. "But you're much better than them. So you hold that gorgeous head of yours high and don't let them see you nervous, alright? Can you do that for me?"

Like he could understand me, Buckbeak lifted his head a little higher, bonking my forehead with his and giving a soft, comforting cry. I gave him one last scratch under the chin, one behind the wings, and then I hurried after Harry and the others, wiping tears from my eyes.

Harry threw the cloak over all of us just as we heard voices at the front of the cabin. Hagrid looked at the place where we had last been seen.

"Go quick," he said hoarsely. "Don' listen..." And he strode back into his cabin as someone knocked at the front door. Slowly, in a kind of horrified trance, we set off silently around Hagrid's house. As we reached the other side, the front door closed with a sharp snap.

"Please, let's hurry," Hermione whispered. "I can't stand it, I can't bear it..."

We started up the sloping lawn toward the castle. The sun was sinking fast now; the sky had turned to a clear, purple-tinged gray, but to the west there was a ruby-red glow. I remembered with another shiver the saying 'red sky at night, sailor's delight.' I had no idea about any sailors, but what I was feeling was the opposite of delight.

Ron stopped dead.

"Oh, please, Ron," Hermione begged.

"It's Scabbers… he won't… stay put…"

Ron was bent over, trying to keep Scabbers in his pocket, but the rat was going berserk; squeaking madly, twisting and flailing, trying to sink his teeth into Ron's hand. I reached out, trying to help. I had a way with animals, Hagrid had said it before. But when Scabbers saw my hand he started thrashing worse than ever. Quickly I pulled back, bemused.

"Scabbers, it's me, you idiot, it's Ron!" Ron hissed.

They heard a door open behind them and men's voices.

"Oh, Ron, please let's move, they're going to do it!" Hermione pleaded.

"Okay - Scabbers, stay put-"

We walked forward, a rumble of voices coming up from the cabin. Ron stopped again.

"I can't hold him - Scabbers, shut up, everyone'll hear us –"

The rat was squealing wildly, but not loudly enough to cover up the sounds drifting from Hagrid's garden.

I considered turning away, I really did. A large part of me didn't want to see Buckbeak die. But then I realized – I told him to hold his head high and be proud. I couldn't turn away now, no matter how much the idea of Buckbeak being in two pieces made my lunch lurch in my stomach.

There was a jumble of indistinct male voices, a silence, and then, without warning, the unmistakable swish and thud of an axe.

It was so red was my first dizzy thought as Buckbeak's head hit the ground in a burst of blood. His body collapsed behind it, mismatched feet faintly twitching. His gorgeous golden eyes were dim and his feathers seemed to lose their luster. One strong wing was crumbled uncomfortably under the body.

But he'd done what I asked. Buckbeak had held his head high. Biting my lip to fight down a whimper and studiously ignoring the tears streaming silently down my cheeks, I finally turned away.

Hermione swayed on the spot. "They did it!" she whispered in horror. "I'd… I don't believe it - they did it!"

Like Hermione speaking had triggered it, there was a wild, heart-broken howling behind us.

"Hagrid," Harry muttered. Without thinking about what he was doing, he made to turn back, but both Ron and Hermione seized his arms.

"If you go back now, then he'll be in worse trouble for us having seen him," I said shortly, seizing his shoulder firmly.

Hermione's breathing was shallow and uneven. "How - could - they?" she choked. "How could they?"

"Easy," I said with a humorless scoff. "Malfoy's a bastard who learned from the best."

"Come on," said Ron, whose teeth seemed to be chattering.

We set off back toward the castle, walking slowly to keep ourselves hidden under the cloak. With four of us it was nearly impossible. The light was fading fast now, so it at least helped keep our feet from being seen when the cloak shifted and revealed them. By the time we reached open ground, darkness was settling like a spell around us and we were moving faster, the cloak slipping more and more.

"Scabbers, keep still," Ron hissed, clamping his hand over his chest. The rat was wriggling madly. Ron came to a sudden halt, trying to force Scabbers deeper into his pocket. "What's the matter with you, you stupid rat? Stay still - Ow! He bit me!"

"Ron, be quiet!" Hermione whispered urgently. "Fudge'll be out here in a minute-"

"He won't - stay – put-"

Scabbers was plainly terrified. He was writhing with all his might, trying to break free of Ron's grip.

"What's the matter with him?" I mused aloud. It was clear the rat was terrified out of his mind by something, but there was nothing here but us.

But then a flicker of movement caught my eye. Slinking toward us, his body low to the ground, wide yellow eyes glinting eerily in the darkness, was Crookshanks. He couldn't see us, but he didn't need to as loud as Scabber's was squeaking. I elbowed Hermione roughly.

"Crookshanks!" Hermione moaned. "No, go away, Crookshanks! Go away!"

But the cat just stepped closer, tail twitching teasingly.

"Scabbers - NO!"

The rat had slipped between Ron's clutching fingers, hit the ground, and scampered away. In one bound, Crookshanks sprang after him, and before any of us could stop him, Ron had thrown the Invisibility Cloak off himself and pelted away into the darkness.

"Ron!" Hermione groaned.

"Screw this, we have to move," I hissed, ripping the cloak away from us and letting it trail behind me as we stormed after Ron. He was heading towards the Whomping Willow, it seemed – because tonight wasn't wretched enough.

"Get away from him, get away… Scabbers, come here-"

There was a loud thud. "Gotcha!" Ron had tackled his rat. "Get off, you stinking cat-" He was sprawled on the ground, but Scabbers was back in his pocket; he had both hands held tight over the quivering lump, kicking at the ground to try and keep Crookshanks back.

"Ron… come on back under the cloak," Hermione panted. "Dumbledore, the Minister… they'll be coming back out in a minute!"

But I heard something. Footsteps, but not human footsteps. "Shhh!" I snapped at everyone, holding up my hands for silence. Gigantic footsteps, heavy, and whatever it was, it was moving toward us fast… I whipped around, the others having heard it too. We stared as a giant, bear-like black dog bounded toward us.

Harry reached for his wand, but the dog made an enormous leap and its front paws hit him on the chest. Harry went down as the force of its leap carried the dog into a roll off of him. The dog growled furiously and skidding around to come at us again.

I managed to get my wand out and up, stepping in front of Harry, but the spell died on my lips as the dog plowed right past Harry and I.

"Ron!" I shouted in warning.

Ron was on his feet. The dog made another flying leap and its jaws fastened instead around Ron's outstretched arm. Harry lunged forward, seizing a handful of the dog's hair.

"Don't!" I screamed, grabbing the back of Harry's collar and dragging him off of the dog.

What I had told Harry in our first year still held true, much to his distaste. I was closer to Ron and Hermione than I had been back then, but I would still happily toss them under the bus if it kept Harry safe. Whatever this dog was – it wasn't a breed I recognized and was too big to be your average stray – it was lashing out wildly. I didn't want it deciding the thing pulling its hair would be a better chew toy than Ron.

The dog was dragging Ron away as easily as though he were a rag doll. Out of nowhere, I heard a whistling noise and saw something swinging toward me out of the corner of my eye.

"Duck!" I screamed in warning. Years of dodging Dudley had me crumpling instinctively. Harry didn't move as fast – the Whomping Willow's branch hit him so hard across the face he was knocked off his feet again. Hermione shrieked with pain and fell too as another branch lashed at her.

A heavy branch with a knotted end like a club came swinging toward me. I rolled to the right frantically. Harry's wand lit to my left and I saw the trunk of the tree, the dog dragging a thrashing Ron into a gap in the tree's roots...

I reared back as the tree lashed at me again and caught the tip of a twig across the bridge of my nose. Cursing wildly, eyes watering, I scrambled to my feet.

"Ron!" Harry shouted, lunging for the Weasley, but the tree's branches kept him back as well.

Ron had hooked a leg around the tree roots to try and keep himself from being dragged it. It would have been a good plan – had the dog not outweighed him by several pounds and been much stronger than he was. With a horrible crack that cut the air like a gunshot Ron's leg snapped and he was dragged away.

"Harry – we've got to go for help!" Hermione gasped, clutching her own shoulder. Harry shook his head determinedly, green eyes blazing.

"No! That thing's big enough to eat him; we haven't got time!"

"Harry, we're never going to get through without help-"

"If that dog can get in, we can," Harry panted, darting here and there, trying to find a way through the vicious, swishing branches.

"Oh, help, help," Hermione whispered frantically, dancing uncertainly on the spot, "Please..."

Crookshanks darted forward. He slithered between the battering branches like a snake and placed his front paws upon a knot on the trunk. Abruptly, as though the tree had been turned to marble, it stopped moving. Not a leaf twitched or shook.

I gaped. "That settles it, that cat's definitely part kneazle."

"Crookshanks!" Hermione whispered uncertainly. She had grasped Harry's arm in a grip that looked painful. "How did he know -?"

"He's friends with that dog," said Harry grimly. I flicked my eyes to the side. He'd never mentioned that… "I've seen them together. Come on - and keep your wand out."

We covered the distance to the trunk in seconds, eager to get away from the tree, but before they had reached the gap in the roots, Crookshanks had slid into it with a flick of his bottlebrush tail. Harry went first. I followed, Hermione bringing up the rear. We slithered down a low, earthy slope into a tunnel. Crookshanks waited for us, tail still twitching.

"Where's Ron?" Hermione whispered in a terrified voice.

"This way," said Harry, setting off, bent-backed, after Crookshanks. I hurried after him, keeping my wand aloft.

"Lumos!" I whispered, giving us a little light. Random roots curled in from the walls and the ground was uneven – the light helped make following the cat easier.

"Where does this tunnel come out?" Hermione asked breathlessly.

"It's marked on the Marauder's Map but Fred and George said no one's ever gotten into it..." I said, remembering when the twins had very smugly presented me with the map. "It goes off the edge of the map, but it looked like it was heading for Hogsmeade..."

We moved as fast as we could, bent almost double with Crookshanks leading the way. On and on went the passage; it felt at least as long as the one to Honeydukes... I was drawing breath in sharp, painful gasps, running at a crouch...

The scars around my side and back still pained me sometimes when I stretched or bent the wrong way, giving a dull, painful tug. They didn't like the fact that I was bent over and by the time the tunnel began to rise they were throbbing in time with my steps. Ahead I could see a dim bit of light through a hole in the ceiling so I doused my wand – no need to give the dog any more warning than it already had.

We edged forward cautiously to see what was above us. It was a room, a very disordered, dusty room. Paper was peeling from the walls, there were stains all over the floor, and every piece of furniture was broken as though somebody had smashed it. The windows were all boarded up.

Harry glanced at Hermione and I. He pulled himself out of the hole, staring around. I gave Hermione a boost up and then followed after them, thanking Quidditch for keeping my arms strong enough to drag my skinny butt up. The room was deserted, but a door to our right stood open, leading to a shadowy hallway. Hermione suddenly grabbed Harry's arm again. Her wide eyes were traveling around the boarded windows.

"I think…" she whispered, "I think we're in the Shrieking Shack."

I tried to recall the path of the tunnel and the distance we'd gone from Hogwarts. Considering the direction we'd come, that sounded about right. The Shrieking Shack was a little outside of Hogsmeade proper, after all, and it did indeed have boarded up windows.

I looked at Harry. His eyes were hidden behind his glasses but his face was tilted towards a wooden chair near us. Large chunks had been torn out of it; one of the legs had been ripped off entirely.

"Ghosts didn't do that," he said slowly. I nodded and moved forward, kneeling by the chair. The wood was broken, but it was also dusty and worn instead of sharp and shiny.

"Someone ripped it apart," I agreed, "but this was done a while ago."

At that moment, there was a creak overhead. Something had moved upstairs. We all looked up at the ceiling. I clenched my hand on my wand in my pocket, ready to draw it at a moment's notice.

Quietly as we could, we crept out into the hall and up the crumbling staircase. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust except the floor, where a wide shiny stripe had been made by something being dragged upstairs. It didn't take a genius to figure out which way Ron had been taken.

Of the dark landing, only one door was open. As we crept toward it, we heard movement from behind it, a low moan, and then a deep, loud purring. We exchanged a last look, a last nod.

Wand held tightly before him, Harry kicked the door wide open.

On a magnificent four-poster bed with dusty hangings lay Crookshanks, purring loudly at the sight of us. On the floor beside him, clutching his leg, which stuck out at a strange angle, was Ron. I winced in sympathy – bone pain was the worst. Harry and Hermione dashed across to him. I lingered in the shadow of the doorway, watching carefully. There was no evidence the dog had ever left the room, and Harry and Hermione had just dropped their guards down to the ground floor. It could lunge at them out of nowhere – someone had to watch their backs.

Just where had the damn dog gone?

"Ron - are you okay?" Hermione fretted.

"Where's the dog?" Harry voiced my question.

"Not a dog," Ron moaned. His teeth were gritted with pain. "Harry, it's a trap-"

"What-"

"He's the dog... he's an Animagus."

Ron was staring over Harry's shoulder. Harry wheeled around. With a snap, a man in the corner emerged and tried to fling the door shut. I caught it on my foot and stepped inside the room.

"Not so fast," I said coldly. "Company's still coming."

The man bared his yellow teeth in a grin. He could have been a corpse – his skin was stretched so tightly he looked half-desiccated already. Grey eyes shone from the depths of their socket. A mass of filthy, knotted black hair hung to past his shoulders.

It was Sirius Black.

"Expelliarmus!" he croaked, pointing Ron's wand at us.

Harry's and Hermione's wands shot out of their hands, high in the air, and Black caught them. Mine remained firmly in my pocket, my hand clenched tightly around it, ready for the spell. Black didn't seem quite sane enough to count the number of wands in his hand. He took a step closer. His eyes were fixed on Harry, holding an eerily intense glow.

"I thought you'd come and help your friend," he said hoarsely. His voice sounded as though he had long since lost the habit of using it. "Your father would have done the same for me. Brave of you not to run for a teacher. I'm grateful...it will make everything much easier..."

A familiar, hateful rage welled up inside of me. I bared my teeth in a wild snarl as Black dared, dared to mention my father in front of Harry, in front of me. He stood there grinning, as if the man he'd just said would have come to save him wasn't at this moment rotting in a grave because of Black himself. At that moment I understood the hatred and rage that was needed to cast Unforgiveables.

Seemingly mindless, Harry started forward, but there was a sudden movement on either side of him and two pairs of hands grabbed him and held him back... "No, Harry!" Hermione gasped in a petrified whisper. Ron spoke to Black.

"If you want to kill Harry, you'll have to kill us too!" he said fiercely, though the effort of standing upright was draining him of still more color, and he swayed slightly as he spoke.

Something flickered in Black's shadowed eyes. Something almost like… guilt? Pity? Concern? Whatever it was it didn't belong on the face of a monster. It was enough to at least make my death grip on my wand loosen slightly.

"Lie down," he said quietly to Ron. "You will damage that leg even more."

"Did you hear me?" Ron said weakly, though he was clinging painfully to Harry to stay upright. "You'll have to kill all three of us!"

"Listen to him, Ron!" I hissed shortly, and I felt like screaming for having to agree with Black. "If you do more damage to that leg even Madam Pomfrey won't be able to save you from pain down the road."

Black's grin widened. He liked having me agree with him. "There'll be only one murder here tonight."

"Why's that?" Harry spat, trying to wrench himself free of Ron, and Hermione. "Didn't care last time, did you? Didn't mind slaughtering all those Muggles to get at Pettigrew... What's the matter, gone soft in Azkaban?"

"Harry!" Hermione whimpered. "Be quiet!"

"He killed my mum and dad!" Harry roared, and with a huge effort he broke free of Hermione's and Ron's restraint and lunged forward. Perhaps it was the shock of Harry doing something so stupid, but Black didn't raise the wands in time. One of Harry's hands fastened over his wasted wrist, forcing the wand tips away. The knuckles of Harry's other hand collided with the side of Black's head and they fell backward into the wall.

Hermione was screaming and Ron was yelling, both of them utterly useless. There was a blinding flash as the wands in Black's hand sent a jet of sparks into the air that missed Harry's face by inches, his arm twisting madly. Harry clung on and kept throwing punches.

Black's free hand reached for Harry's throat "No," he hissed, "I've waited too long-"

"Get off of him, damn it!" I said, lunging forward. My wand was abandoned in my pocket as well as I grabbed Harry and ripped him away from Balck ruthlessly. He overbalanced and toppled to the ground, glaring up at me hatefully.

"Rena, what are you doing?" he demanded, betrayal on his face. "He killed-"

"I know exactly what he did, Harry," I said shortly. "You may be The Boy Who Lived, but you're not the only one who lost their parents to him. I want to hurt him just as badly as you do," I said wrathfully, glaring over my shoulder at Black. "Believe me. But maybe… you should leave that to someone who still has a wand!" I swung around and lifted my wand. "Expelliarmus!" Three wands – I was smart enough to count – flew into my free hand. I separated them and tossed them back to their respective owners.

Ron caught his and crawled to the four-poster and collapsed onto it, panting, his white face now tinged with green, both hands clutching his broken leg. Hermione aimed her wand at Black, but I could feel her uncertain eyes on my back. Harry stood up next to me, pointing his wand with me.

Black was sprawled at the bottom of the wall. His thin chest rose and fell rapidly as he watched us walking slowly nearer, our wands pointing straight at Black's heart.

"Going to kill me, Harry?" he whispered. His eyes flicked to me and something like annoyance sparked there. "Or are you going to leave that to your sister?"

Harry stopped right above him, his wand still pointing at Black's chest, looking down at him. A livid bruise was rising around Black's left eye and his nose was bleeding.

"You killed our parents," said Harry, his voice shaking slightly, but his wand hand quite steady.

I was proud that neither my voice nor my hand shook as I spoke. "You killed our parents," I repeated, "And you dare to sit there and taunt us still? While our wands are pointed at you?"

Black stared up at us out of those sunken eyes. I'd seen his picture inside my photo album of my parents. I remembered him as the handsome, dark-haired boy who was always laughing. He had fallen so far from that, and I wanted to see him fall even further. The desire for revenge burned in my chest.

"I don't deny it," he said very quietly. "But if you knew the whole story-"

"The whole story?" Harry repeated furiously. "You sold them to Voldemort. That's all I need to know."

"We're not interested in hearing about whether or not your life was at stake," I snarled. "I'm very close to taking that from you now anyway, so it means little to me."

"You've got to listen to me," Black said, and there was a note of urgency in his voice now. "You'll regret it if you don't...You don't understand..."

"I understand a lot better than you think," said Harry, and his voice shook more than ever. "You never heard her, did you? My mum...trying to stop Voldemort killing me...and you did that...you did it..."

I winced. I knew what Harry heard when the dementors came close. In some ways, I envied him. I would gladly trade anything I owned to hear my mother's voice, just once, even if it was in panic. I would gladly listen to anything, anything, except Voldemort whispering in my ear.

Before any of could say another word, something ginger streaked past Harry. Crookshanks leapt onto Black's chest and settled himself there over his heart. Black blinked and looked down at the cat.

"Get off," he murmured, trying to push Crookshanks off him.

But Crookshanks sank his claws into Black's robes and wouldn't shift. He turned his ugly, squashed face to Harry and I and looked up at us with those great yellow eyes. Hermione gave a dry sob.

I could have cursed. No way was I going to kill Hermione's cat, tempting as it was since the animal seemed to like Black. Then again, that was surprising. Crookshanks – all animals really – was normally a very good judge of character. And, for some unfathomable reason, the cat trusted Black, enough to risk its life for him.

I was certain that the cat was part-kneazle, and they were known for being good at detecting enemies of their owners. The cat may like Black, but it was undoubtedly Hermione's cat. And if the cat had no problem with Black, then logic followed – crazy as it sounded – that Black meant Hermione no harm. And Hermione would definitely be harmed if Black went after Harry, so that begged a question.

Just what the hell was going on here?

I didn't get to ponder the question for very long. Muffled footsteps were echoing up through the floor; someone was moving downstairs.

"We're up here!" Hermione screamed. "We're up here! Sirius Black! Quick!"

Black made a startled movement that almost dislodged Crookshanks and I saw Harry grip his wand tighter and raised it. I could see a spell frozen on his lips but the footsteps were thundering up the stairs.

The door of the room burst open in a shower of red sparks and Harry and I wheeled around as Professor Lupin came hurtling into the room. He was white as a sheet, his wand raised and ready. His amber eyes flickered over Ron on the floor, to Hermione cowering next to the door, to Harry and I standing there with our wands covering Black, and finally to Black himself, crumpled and bleeding at our feet.

"Expelliarmus!" Lupin shouted.

This time all of us lost our wands - I was relaxed enough that I didn't expect the spell. Lupin caught the wands deftly and moved into the room, staring at Black. Crookshanks was still huddled protectively on his chest.

Then Lupin spoke, in a very tense voice. "Where is he, Sirius?"

I stared at my Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher incredulously. Like most students, he was a favorite of mine – I'd always loved hands-on work. Unlike most Slytherins, I didn't look down on him for his scruffy, battered appearance and worn clothes. But there he was, standing bold as brass and calling Black Sirius like they were old friends.

And they were, I realized with a start. I could have cheerfully banged my head against the wall. I knew Lupin knew my father, and so he must have known Sirius. Lupin wasn't pictured as often in my album but the skinny, sandy-haired boy that sometimes popped up must be him. He looked much older now, much more scarred and worn, but it was unmistakably the same boy form the pictures.

And I'd known all that, somewhere in the back of my head where you know obvious things that don't need to be thought about. But also back in that same part I'd thought I knew that Lupin would be on our side – that he would want Black back in Azkaban for killing our parents, his old friends. But it seemed that I was wrong. Lupin was still talking to him like an old friend, he'd disarmed us as soon as he came into the room.

Black's face was quite expressionless. For a few seconds, he didn't move at all. Then, very slowly, he raised his empty hand and pointed straight at Ron. Bewildered, I glanced around at Ron, who looked bewildered.

"But then..." Lupin muttered, staring at Black so intently it seemed he was trying to read his mind, "...why hasn't he shown himself before now? Unless…" Lupin's eyes suddenly widened, as though he was seeing something beyond Black, something none of the rest could see, "-unless he was the one...unless you switched... without telling me?"

Very slowly, his sunken gaze never leaving Lupin's face, Black nodded.

"Professor," Harry interrupted loudly, "what's going on -?"

But he never finished the question, because Lupin was lowering his wand, gazing fixed at Black. The Professor walked to Black's side, seized his hand, pulled him to his feet so that Crookshanks fell to the floor, and embraced Black like a brother.

"I don't believe it!" Hermione screamed.

Lupin let go of Black and turned to her. She had raised herself off the floor and was pointing at Lupin, wild-eyed. "You – you-"

Lupin reached out a hand placatingly. "Hermione-"

"You and him!"

"Hermione, calm down…" Lupin pleaded.

"I didn't tell anyone!" Hermione shrieked. "I've been covering up for you-"

As had I. Once Snape set the essay on werewolves it all came into place. Lupin's disappearances from class once a month and the exhaustion he carried in the days after his absence. The cuts and scars on his body and the grey that pepper his hair even though he was barely in his mid-thirties.

"Hermione, listen to me, please!" Lupin shouted. "I can explain-"

Harry was trembling next to me. "I trusted you!" he shouted at Lupin, his voice wavering, out of control, "And all the time you've been his friend!"

"You're wrong," said Lupin simply. "I haven't been Sirius's friend, but I am now- Let me explain..."

"No!" Hermione screamed desperately. "Harry, don't trust him, he's been helping Black get into the castle, he wants you dead too – he's a werewolf!"

And there it was, hanging in the silence. All eyes were now on Lupin, who looked remarkably calm, though rather pale.

"Not at all up to your usual standard, Hermione," he said quietly. "Only one out of three, I'm afraid. I have not been helping Sirius get into the castle and I certainly don't want Harry dead." An odd shiver passed over his face. "But I won't deny that I am a werewolf."

Ron made a valiant effort to get up again but fell back with a whimper of pain. Lupin made toward him, looking concerned, but Ron gasped, "Get away from me, werewolf!" He hurled the word like he would usually say Slytherin or Snape. It was just as bad an offense as any of those things to him.

Lupin stopped dead. Then, with an obvious effort, he turned to Hermione and said, "How long have you known?"

"Ages," Hermione whispered. "Since I did Professor Snape's essay..."

"He'll be delighted," said Lupin coolly. "He assigned that essay hoping someone would realize what my symptoms meant... Did you check the lunar chart and realize that I was always ill at the full moon? Or did you realize that the Boggart changed into the moon when it saw me?"

"Both," Hermione said quietly.

Lupin forced a laugh. "You're the cleverest witch of your age I've ever met, Hermione."

"I'm not," Hermione whispered. "If I'd been a bit cleverer, I'd have told everyone what you are!"

Finally I found my voice again. It was sharp and brittle, like cracked glass as I locked eyes with the professor and said coldly, "So it wouldn't have mattered if I said anything anyway. And here I thought I was doing you a favor. I shouldn't have, should I?" I laughed humorlessly. "Keeping a secret for a self-professed friend of the man who got my parents killed. What a wonderful daughter I am."

Lupin's eyes looked even sadder than they had a moment before. It pleased me to see that my words hurt him just as much as his words had hurt me when he claimed to be Black's friend.

"I supposed I shouldn't be surprised you figured it out as well," he admitted. "You are as clever as your mother. Or did Snape just tell you?"

I scoffed. "Do you think Professor Snape has ever made it easy for me? He likes me, but if anything he expects more of me for that. No, it's because I'm the best Potions student to come through the school since Snape himself. I've never made it before, but I know what Wolfsbane Potion looks like and when I saw Snape brewing it I knew something was going on. Then the essay came and I already knew all about werewolves from my own reading. That was when I began to suspect. I checked the lunar tables, like you said, and that confirmed it for me. I considered telling, but you had been… kind." I spit out the word the way Ron had said werewolf.

"But they already know," said Lupin. "At least, the staff do."

"Dumbledore hired you when he knew you were a werewolf," Ron gasped. "Is he mad?"

"Some of the staff thought so," said Lupin. "He had to work very hard to convince certain teachers that I'm trustworthy-"

I opened my mouth to guess that Snape had been his biggest dissenter. My Head of House had seemed to hate Lupin from the moment he stepped into Hogwarts, and I'd guessed it was because Snape was a naturally unpleasant person, particularly with Gryffindors, which Lupin was. Apparently there was even more to it than that.

"And he was wrong!" Harry yelled, cutting me off. "You've been helping him all along!" He was pointing at Black, who suddenly crossed to the four-poster bed and sank onto it, his face hidden in one shaking hand. Crookshanks leapt up beside him and stepped onto his lap, purring. Ron edged away from both of them, dragging his leg.

"I have not been helping Sirius," said Lupin. "If you'll give me a chance, I'll explain. Look-"

He separated our wands and threw each back to its owner. I caught the yew wand and ran my fingers over the familiar carved handle, relieved to have it back. I didn't know who to threaten with it at this point so I just held it aloft and stayed tense.

"There," said Lupin, sticking his own wand back into his belt. "You're armed, we're not. Now will you listen?"

"If you haven't been helping him," Harry said, with a furious glance at Black, "how did you know he was here?"

"The map," said Lupin. "The Marauder's Map. I was in my office examining it-"

"You know how to work it?" I said suspiciously. I knew that map inside and out and it wasn't the sort of thing you could just stumble your way into using. You had to know what you were doing or you'd get nothing but a torrent of insults for your troubles.

"Of course I know how to work it," said Lupin, waving his hand impatiently. "I helped write it. I'm Moony - that was my friend's nickname for me at school."

"You wrote -?" Harry began incredulously. But it made sense to me. Lupin was Moony, Black, the dog, as Padfoot. My father, I suspected, was called Prongs. Harry's Patronus seemed to have horns the few times he'd come close to a corporeal projection. That could explain why. I knew that things like Patronuses and Animagi forms were based in personal experience and relationships.

That left Pettigrew as Wormtail, which was a little trickier to guess.

"The important thing is, I was watching it carefully this evening, because I had an idea that you, Lorena, Ron, and Hermione might try and sneak out of the castle to visit Hagrid before his hippogriff was executed. And I was right, wasn't I?" He had started to pace up and down, looking at them. Little patches of dust rose at his feet. "You might have been wearing your father's old cloak, Harry-"

"How do you know about the cloak?" Harry demanded.

"Moony," I said pointing at Lupin. I pointed back to Black, who was watching us all with silent, mad eyes. "Padfoot. Our dad was Prongs."

"The number of times I saw James disappearing under it..." agreed Lupin, waving an impatient hand again. "The point is, even if you're wearing an Invisibility Cloak, you still show up on the Marauder's Map. I watched you cross the grounds and enter Hagrid's hut. Twenty minutes later, you left Hagrid, and set off back toward the castle. But you were now accompanied by somebody else."

"What?" said Harry. "No, we weren't!"

I blinked. Someone with us? All we'd done was pick up Scabbers, I'd never seen the map show animals aside from Mrs. Norris, which I suspected was a special dispensation the Marauders made seeing as she was Filch's second set of eyes. A rat would hardly…

I inhaled sharply. A rat. A rat… Wormtail. Scabbers was missing a toe. "The biggest bit they ever found of him was his finger…"

I stared at the lump in Ron's pocket, which had stopped trying to escape but was now visibly quivering. My mouth dropped open in disbelief. I heard a faint snort and flicked my eyes over to look at Black. He was observing me knowingly, and then he nodded. Just once, a simple up and down with that mad gleam in his eye, and I knew I was right.

"I couldn't believe my eyes," said Lupin, still pacing, and ignoring Harry's interruption. "I thought the map must be malfunctioning. How could he be with you?"

"No one was with us!" said Harry shortly. I shook my head.

"Harry," I said softly.

"And then I saw another dot, moving fast toward you, labeled Sirius Black...I saw him collide with you; I watched as he pulled two of you into the Whomping Willow-"

"One of us!" Ron said angrily.

"No, Ron," said Lupin. "Two of you."

He had stopped his pacing, his eyes moving over Ron. "Do you think I could have a look at the rat?" he said evenly.

"What?" Ron gaped. "What's Scabbers got to do with it?"

"Everything," said Lupin reasonably. "Could I see him, please?"

Ron hesitated, then put a hand inside his robes. Scabbers emerged, thrashing desperately; Ron had to seize his long bald tail to stop him escaping. Crookshanks stood up on Black's leg and made a soft hissing noise.

I stared at Scabbers. The more I thought about it the more it made sense. Scabbers had looked like hell ever since Black had escaped Azkaban – of course he had, Sirius knew that he hadn't killed Pettigrew. Crookshanks was Black's ally, of course he hated Scabbers. But even before that, he'd disliked the rat – because he knew that Scabbers wasn't a rat, but a human in disguise.

Crookshanks really was a good judge of character.

But then came the all important question. Why had Pettigrew faked his death?

"Why did he do it?" I asked aloud. All eyes turned to me.

"Lorena," Hermione asked softly. "What are you talking about?"

"Why did who do what?" Harry demanded irritably.

But Black was grinning at me again, looking delighted. "You're the brilliant one," he praised. "Even quicker than your mom. And here I was worried that Slytherin bastard had gotten his claws in you."

Black didn't say any names, but I could easily guess that by Slytherin bastard he meant Professor Snape. The anger that I had just barely contained rushed through me. In two quick strides I crossed to the bed where Black was sitting. I ignored my wand and backhanded black with every bit of anger I had in me. He jolted, head snapping to the side.

"You will not insult my Head of House!" I screamed at him. "I have questions but that doesn't mean I'm not ready to kill you if you so much as sneeze the wrong way!"

Black sat up, looking at me angrily, but Lupin held up a hand calmingly. "Sirius, calm down," he chided. "She's nothing like your parents, trust me."

I had no idea what he meant by that, but at this point it was the least of my questions. I watched as Lupin moved closer to Ron. He seemed to be holding his breath as he gazed intently at Scabbers.

"What?" Ron said again, holding Scabbers close to him, looking scared. "What's my rat got to do with anything?"

"That's not a rat," croaked Black.

"What d'you mean - of course he's a rat-"

"No, he's not," disagreed Lupin quietly. "He's a wizard."

"An Animagus," continued Black, "by the name of Peter Pettigrew."

There was a moment of silence. Then Ron spoke. "You're both mental," he announced.

"Ridiculous!" said Hermione faintly.

"Peter Pettigrew's dead!" said Harry shortly. "He killed him twelve years ago!" He pointed at Black, whose face twitched convulsively.

"I meant to," he growled, his yellow teeth bared, "but little Peter got the better of me...not this time, though!"

And Crookshanks was thrown to the floor as Black lunged at Scabbers; Ron yelled with pain as Black's weight fell on his broken leg.

"Sirius, NO!" Lupin yelled, launching himself forwards and dragging Black away from Ron again, "WAIT! You can't do it just like that… they need to understand… we've got to explain…"

"We can explain afterwards!" snarled Black, trying to throw Lupin off. One hand was still clawing the air as it tried to reach Scabbers, who was squealing like a piglet, scratching Ron's face and neck as he tried to escape.

"They've - got - a - right - to - know - everything!" Lupin panted, still trying to restrain Black. "Ron's kept him as a pet! There are parts of it even I don't understand, and Harry… you owe Harry and Lorena the truth, Sirius!"

Black stopped struggling, though his hollowed eyes were still fixed on Scabbers, who was clamped tightly under Ron's bitten, scratched, and bleeding hands.

"All right, then," Black said, without taking his eyes off the rat. "Tell them whatever you like. But make it quick, Remus. I want to commit the murder I was imprisoned for..."

"You're nutters, both of you," said Ron shakily, looking round at Harry and Hermione for support. "I've had enough of this. I'm off."

He tried to heave himself up on his good leg, but Lupin raised his wand again, pointing it at Scabbers.

"You're going to hear me out, Ron," he said quietly. "Just keep a tight hold on Peter while you listen."

"He's not Peter, he's Scabbers!" Ron yelled, trying to force the rat back into his front pocket, but Scabbers was fighting too hard; Ron swayed and overbalanced, and Harry caught him and pushed him back down to the bed.

I finally lowered my wand, letting my arm hang at my side. Hermione looked at me incredulously as I licked my lips. I still hated agreeing with Black, but something was going on that we didn't know about. I wanted answers.

"No Ron," I said quietly. "I really don't think he is Scabbers."

Harry turned to Lupin. "There were witnesses who saw Pettigrew die," he said. "A whole street full of them..."

"They didn't see what they thought they saw!" Black snarled, still watching Scabbers struggling in Ron's hands.

"Everyone thought Sirius killed Peter," agreed Lupin, nodding. "I believed it myself - until I saw the map tonight. Because the Marauder's map never lies...Peter's alive. Ron's holding him, Harry."

Hermione spoke, in a trembling, would-be calm sort of voice, as though trying to will Professor Lupin to talk sensibly. "But Professor Lupin...Scabbers can't be Pettigrew...it just can't be true, you know it can't..."

"Why can't it be true?" Lupin said calmly, as though they were in class, and Hermione had simply spotted a problem in an experiment with Grindylows.

"Because... because people would know if Peter Pettigrew had been an Animagus. We did Animagi in class with Professor McGonagall. And I looked them up when I did my homework - the Ministry of Magic keeps tabs on witches and wizards who can become animals; there's a register showing what animal they become, and their markings and things...and I went and looked Professor McGonagall up on the register, and there have been only seven Animagi this century, and Pettigrew's name wasn't on the list."

I'd done the same thing. The idea of Animagi fascinated me, enough that I was considering attempting to become one someday. I'd done just what Hermione had, devouring book after book and searching the registry.

I rolled my eyes. "And Sirius Black's name isn't on there either," I countered. "Neither is my father's. And yet," I swung an arm around, gesturing to Black. "That registry is only useful if people bother to admit what they can do. Every one of the Marauders could turn into an animal, why not Pettigrew?"

Lupin chuckled. "The Ministry never knew that here used to be three unregistered Animagi running around Hogwarts."

"If you're going to tell them the story, get a move on, Remus," said Black impatiently, who was still watching Scabbers's every desperate move. "I've waited twelve years, I'm not going to wait much longer."

"All right...but you'll need to help me, Sirius," submitted Lupin, "I only know how it began..."

Lupin broke off. There had been a loud creak behind him. The bedroom door had opened of its own accord. All of us stared at it. Then Lupin strode toward it and looked out into the landing.

"No one there..."

"This place is haunted!" exclaimed Ron.

"So's Hogwarts," I said pointedly.

"It's not," countered Lupin, still looking at the door in a puzzled way. "The Shrieking Shack was never haunted...The screams and howls the villagers used to hear were made by me."

He pushed his graying hair out of his eyes, thought for a moment then said, "That's where all of this starts - with my becoming a werewolf. None of this could have happened if I hadn't been bitten... and if I hadn't been so foolhardy..."

He looked sober and tired. Ron started to interrupt, but Hermione said, "Shh!" She was watching Lupin very intently.

"I was a very small boy when I received the bite. My parents tried everything, but in those days there was no cure. The Wolfsbane Potion that Professor Snape has been making for me is a very recent discovery. It makes me safe, you see. As long as I take it in the week, preceding the full moon, I keep my mind when I transform...I'm able to curl up in my office, a harmless wolf, and wait for the moon to wane again.

"Before the Wolfsbane Potion was discovered, however, I became a fully fledged monster once a month. It seemed impossible that I would be able to come to Hogwarts. Other parents weren't likely to want their children exposed to me.

"But then Dumbledore became Headmaster, and he was sympathetic. He said that as long as we took certain precautions, there was no reason I shouldn't come to school..." Lupin sighed, and looked directly at Harry. "I told you, months ago, that the Whomping Willow was planted the year I came to Hogwarts. The truth is that it was planted because I came to Hogwarts. This house," Lupin looked miserably around the room, "the tunnel that leads to it, they were built for my use. Once a month, I was smuggled out of the castle, into this place, to transform. The tree was placed at the tunnel mouth to stop anyone coming across me while I was dangerous.

"My transformations in those days were - were terrible. It is very painful to turn into a werewolf. I was separated from humans to bite, so I bit and scratched myself instead. The villagers heard the noise and the screaming and thought they were hearing particularly violent spirits. Dumbledore encouraged the rumor...Even now, when the house has been silent for years, the villagers don't dare approach it...

"But apart from my transformations, I was happier than I had ever been in my life. For the first time ever, I had friends, three great friends. Sirius Black...Peter Pettigrew...and, of course, your father, - James Potter.

"Now, my three friends could hardly fail to notice that I disappeared once a month. I made up all sorts of stories. I told them my mother was ill, and that I had to go home to see her...I was terrified they would desert me the moment they found out what I was. But of course, they, like you, Hermione, worked out the truth...

"And they didn't desert me at all. Instead, they did something for me that would make my transformations not only bearable, but the best times of my life. They became Animagi."

"My dad too?" said Harry, astounded.

"Yes, indeed," said Lupin. "It took them the best part of three years to work out how to do it. Your father and Sirius here were the cleverest students in the school, and lucky they were, because the Animagus transformation can go horribly wrong - one reason the Ministry keeps a close watch on those attempting to do it. Peter needed all the help he could get from James and Sirius. Finally, in our fifth year, they managed it. They could each turn into a different animal at will."

"But how did that help you?" said Hermione, sounding puzzled.

"They couldn't keep me company as humans, so they kept me company as animals," said Lupin. "A werewolf is only a danger to people. They sneaked out of the castle every month under James's Invisibility Cloak. They transformed...Peter, as the smallest, could slip beneath the Willow's attacking branches and touch the knot that freezes it. They would then slip down the tunnel and join me. Under their influence, I became less dangerous. My body was still wolfish, but my mind seemed to become less so while I was with them."

"Hurry up, Remus," snarled Black, who was still watching Scabbers with a horrible sort of hunger on his face.

"I'm getting there, Sirius, I'm getting there... well, highly exciting possibilities were open to us now that we could all transform. Soon we were leaving the Shrieking Shack and roaming the school grounds and the village by night. Sirius and James transformed into such large animals, they were able to keep a werewolf in check. I doubt whether any Hogwarts students ever found out more about the Hogwarts grounds and Hogsmeade than we did... And that's how we came to write the Marauder's Map, and sign it with our nicknames. Like you guessed, Lorena. Sirius is Padfoot. Peter is Wormtail. James was Prongs."

"What sort of animal -?" Harry began, but Hermione cut him off. "That was still really dangerous! Running around in the dark with a werewolf! What if you'd given the others the slip, and bitten somebody?"

"A thought that still haunts me," said Lupin heavily. "And there were near misses, many of them. We laughed about them afterwards. We were young, thoughtless - carried away with our own cleverness.

"I sometimes felt guilty about betraying Dumbledore's trust, of course...he had admitted me to Hogwarts when no other headmaster would have done so, and he had no idea I was breaking the rules he had set down for my own and others' safety. He never knew I had led three fellow students into becoming Animagi illegally. But I always managed to forget my guilty feelings every time we sat down to plan our next month's adventure. And I haven't changed..."

Lupin's face had hardened, and there was self-disgust in his voice. "All this year, I have been battling with myself, wondering whether I should tell Dumbledore that Sirius was an Animagus. But I didn't do it. Why? Because I was too cowardly. It would have meant admitting that I'd betrayed his trust while I was at school, admitting that I'd led others along with me...and Dumbledore's trust has meant everything to me. He let me into Hogwarts as a boy, and he gave me a job when I have been shunned all my adult life, unable to find paid work because of what I am. And so I convinced myself that Sirius was getting into the school using dark arts he learned from Voldemort, that being an Animagus had nothing to do with it...so, in a way, Snape's been right about me all along."

He looked up at Harry, Ron, and Hermione. I already knew this. Why? Because Slytherins celebrated our Head of House's birthday. I knew how old Snape was, and I knew he would have been in the same year as my parents.

"Professor Snape was at school with us. He fought very hard against my appointment to the Defense Against the Dark Arts job. He has been telling Dumbledore all year that I am not to be trusted. He has his reasons...you see, Sirius here played a trick on him which nearly killed him, a trick which involved me-"

Black made a derisive noise. "It served him right," he sneered. "Sneaking around, trying to find out what we were up to...hoping he could get us expelled..."

"Severus was very interested in where I went every month," Lupin explained. "We were in the same year, you know, and we, ah, didn't like each other very much. He especially disliked James. Jealous, I think, of James's talent on the Quidditch field... anyway Snape had seen me crossing the grounds with Madam Pomfrey one evening as she led me toward the Whomping Willow to transform. Sirius thought it would be - er - amusing, to tell Snape all he had to do was prod the knot on the tree trunk with a long stick, and he'd be able to get in after me. Well, of course, Snape tried it. If he'd got as far as this house, he'd have met a fully grown werewolf. But your father, who'd heard what Sirius had done, went after Snape and pulled him back, at great risk to his life... Snape glimpsed me, though, at the end of the tunnel. He was forbidden by Dumbledore to tell anybody, but from that time on he knew what I was..."

"So that's why Snape doesn't like you," said Harry slowly, "because he thought you were in on the joke?"

"That's right," sneered a cold voice from the wall behind Lupin. I knew that voice almost as well as I knew Harry's.

Severus Snape was pulling off the Invisibility Cloak, his wand pointing directly at Lupin. I had been relieved to see Lupin burst in, but that had almost immediately been replaced by betrayal as he stole our wands. But with Professor Snape here, I felt completely calm. I trusted the man with my life.

Hermione screamed. Black leapt to his feet. Harry looked as though he'd received a huge electric shock.

"I found this at the base of the Whomping Willow," said Snape, throwing the cloak aside, careful to keep this wand pointing directly at Lupin's chest. "Very useful, Potter, I thank you..."

Snape was slightly breathless, but his face was full of suppressed triumph. "You're wondering, perhaps, how I knew you were here?" he guessed, his eyes glittering. He'd done what he'd been trying to do since he was a kid – caught Lupin and Black in the act. "I've just been to your office, Lupin. You forgot to take your potion tonight, so I took a gobletful along. And very lucky I did...lucky for me, I mean. Lying on your desk was a certain map. One glance at it told me all I needed to know. I saw you running along this passageway and out of sight."

"Severus-" Lupin began, but Snape overrode him.

"I've told the headmaster again and again that you're helping your old friend Black into the castle, Lupin, and here's the proof. Not even I dreamed you would have the nerve to use this old place as your hideout-"

"Severus, you're making a mistake," insisted Lupin urgently. "You haven't heard everything - I can explain - Sirius is not here to kill Harry-"

"Two more for Azkaban tonight," said Snape, his eyes now gleaming fanatically. "I shall be interested to see how Dumbledore takes this...He was quite convinced you were harmless, you know, Lupin...a tame werewolf-"

"You fool," said Lupin softly. "Is a schoolboy grudge worth putting an innocent man back inside Azkaban?"

Bang! Thin, snakelike cords burst from the end of Snape's wand and twisted themselves around Lupin's mouth, wrists, and ankles; he overbalanced and fell to the floor, unable to move. With a roar of rage, Black started toward Snape, but Snape pointed his wand straight between Black's eyes.

"Give me a reason," he whispered. "Give me a reason to do it, and I swear I will."

Black stopped dead. It would have been impossible to say which face showed more hatred. "Why don't you run along and play with your chemistry set?" he sneered.

"Professor Snape - it wouldn't hurt to hear what they've got to say, w-would it?"

"Miss Granger, you are already facing suspension from this school," Snape spat. "You, Potter, and Weasley are out-of-bounds, in the company of a convicted murderer and a werewolf. For once in your life, hold your tongue."

"But if - if there was a mistake-"

"Keep quiet, you stupid girl!" Snape shouted, looking suddenly quite deranged. I flinched, but I understood. My father and his friends had made life hell for Snape when they were young. If I had the chance to turn the Dursley's over for something… I would take it in a heartbeat and damn anyone who tried to stop me. "Don't talk about what you don't understand!" A few sparks shot out of the end of his wand, which was still pointed at Black's face. Hermione fell silent.

"Vengeance is very sweet," Snape breathed at Black. "How I hoped I would be the one to catch you..."

"The joke's on you again, Severus," Black snarled. "As usual you've put your keen and penetrating mind to the task and come up with the wrong conclusion! But as long as this boy brings his rat up to the castle," he jerked his head at Ron, "I'll come quietly."

"Up to the castle?" said Snape silkily. "I don't think we need to go that far. All I have to do is call the dementors once we get out of the Willow. They'll be very pleased to see you, Black...pleased enough to give you a little kiss, I daresay. The Dementor's Kiss is said to be nearly unbearable to witness but I'll do my best…"

What little color there was in Blacks face left it. "You – you've got to hear me out," he croaked. "The rat- look at the rat-"

But there was a mad glint in Snape's eyes that I had never seen before. He seemed beyond reason.

But I was going to try. "Sir," I said sharply. Snape's eyes flicked to me.

"Potter," he said warningly. "At best you're facing months of detention. Do not force me to take points."

I paled slightly at the threat – in another house it might have been bad, but for me? In Slytherin? That was tantamount to tossing me to the sharks covered in chum. But damn it I needed answers and I needed them badly.

"Sir," I said shortly. "You know me – I'm a spiteful bitch. That man," I pointed at Black, "killed my parents. The absolute only reason I haven't laid into him yet is that he made me believe him. Some things aren't adding up, sir. And I'm sorry for what he may have done to you, sir, I really am… but right now at this moment, I deserve answers more than you deserve revenge."

Snape stared at me, eyes glimmering coolly. I stared back, unblinking, and lifted my chin, daring him to argue. I couldn't back down or I'd lose, and there was no guarantee I'd won even if I didn't. Snape seemed to hate Black and Lupin in a way so deep-set even I was starting to doubt I understood it. There was something more at play here than simple jealousy or a prank-gone-wrong.

Snape's wand wavered. It was subtle, but it was there. I saw it clearly. So did Black. A disgusted look crossed his face as he stared Snape down.

"You freak," he murmured. "You perverted old bast-"

"Silence!" Snape screamed. "Come on, all of you," he said. He clicked his fingers, and the ends of the cords that bound Lupin flew to his hands. I tool a moment to admire the wandless magic before shaking myself. That was another thing I wanted to learn… "I'll drag the werewolf. Perhaps the dementors will have a kiss for him too-"

Before I knew what he was doing, Harry had crossed the room in three strides and blocked the door.

"Get out of the way, Potter, you're in enough trouble already," snarled Snape. "If I hadn't been here to save your skin-"

"Professor Lupin could have killed me about a hundred times this year," Harry said. "I've been alone with him loads of times, having defense lessons against the dementors. If he was helping Black, why didn't he just finish me off then?"

"Don't ask me to fathom the way a werewolf's mind works," hissed Snape. "Get out of the way, Potter."

"Sire, you're not stupid enough to be that bigoted," I scolded him.

"You're pathetic!" Harry yelled. "Just because they made a fool of you at school you won't even listen!"

"Silence!" Snape roared at the same time I snapped, "Harry!"

"I will not be spoken to like that!" Snape shrieked, looking madder than ever. "Like father, like son, Potter! I have just saved your neck; you should be thanking me on bended knee! You would have been well served if he'd killed you! You'd have died like your father, too arrogant to believe you might be mistaken in Black - now get out of the way, or I will make you. Get out of the way, Potter!"

"Sir, please!" I begged, trying desperately to diffuse the situation. I wanted desperately to try and calm everything down – it was the only way I'd get the answers I wanted. But Harry was content to scream and kick up a fuss until he got his way and that was not going to help here. I understood his rage, but it wasn't an advantage here. "Harry, stop shouting… Professor Snape, please, I-"

Harry raised his wand. "Expelliarmus!" he yelled. But he wasn't the only one that shouted. There was a blast that made the door rattle on its hinges. Snape was lifted off his feet and slammed into the wall, then slid down it to the floor, a trickle of blood oozing from under his hair. He had been knocked out. Snape's wand soared in a high arc and landed on the bed next to Crookshanks.

For a moment I just stood and stared at my crumpled mentor incredulously. Then I looked at Harry, Ron, and Hermione in stunned silence. They had… they had just…

"You shouldn't have done that," said Black, looking at Harry. "You should have left him to me..."

Harry avoided Black's eyes.

"We attacked a teacher...We attacked a teacher..." Hermione whimpered, staring at the lifeless Snape with frightened eyes. "Oh, we're going to be in so much trouble-"

"Oh shut the hell up Hermione, you're being useless and annoying!" I shrieked at her.

"Oi!" Ron protested, struggling weakly to rise.

I stared at all of them furiously before my eyes locked on Harry. I stormed towards him, pausing only to bend and tap the ropes binding Lupin with my wand. They snapped loose and I continued on my war path, bearing down on my twin brother.

"Rena," Harry attempted to reason with me.

"Shut up!" I yelled at him. I thrust out my hands. I wasn't even sure I'd connected, but Harry smacked back a couple of inches and hit the wall. "For once in your life, shut up! Merlin, I hate you sometimes! If you would have just let me handle something for once instead of throwing a damn tantrum… Why can't you think sometimes? Why can't you be reasonable?" I moaned. "What could you have possibly gained from pissing Snape off? Nothing! And if you'd used your brains instead of running on stupid you'd have realized that. I had him, he was lowering his wand, until you opened your big mouth and insulted him."

I whirled on Black, who staring at me in disbelief. "You're acting like a schoolboy! I get that after being locked up in Azkaban for thirteen years your people skills are rusty, but maybe instead of running your mouth you should have just kept it shut!"

I knew I was being hypocritical. I ran my mouth all the time, it was practically my favorite hobby, and it wasn't always in the best situations. I knew how pathetic I probably looked standing there in the middle of the dusty bedroom with my face red and tears of frustration and confusion and exhaustion rolling down my cheeks. I had just insulted nearly everyone in the room.

Scrubbing my sweater sleeve against my eyes and tried uselessly to wipe away my tears. The silence in the room was pressing on my ears and nearly made me sob again. Instead I shook my head helplessly and turned away, moving to Professor Snape's side and raising my wand.

Much as I really hated to admit it, it suited my purposes to leave him unconscious. He was a complication I didn't need right now. But aside from that, I was still angry that Harry had attacked him. Snape had been there for me more often than Harry himself had. I still vividly remembered running into the professor after the incident with the Mirror of Erised.

I couldn't wake him back up, but I could make sure he was okay. I murmured the few diagnostic spells I knew under my breath and wiped away the leaking blood from the back of his head with a spell. Another flick of my wand cleaned the dust and dirt from the cut and a final twirl bandaged it.

I stayed kneeling my Professor Snape, my wand twirling nervously around my fingers as I listened to what was going on around me and watched. Everyone seemed to have recovered from my outburst.

"You, boy - give me Peter, please. Now," Lupin requested.

Ron clutched Scabbers closer to his chest. "Come off it," he said weakly. "Are you trying to say he broke out of Azkaban just to get his hands on Scabbers? I mean..." He looked up at Harry and Hermione for support, "Okay, say Pettigrew could turn into a rat - there are millions of rats – how's he supposed to know which one he is after if he was locked up in Azkaban?"

"You know, Sirius, that's a fair question," admitted Lupin, turning to Black and frowning slightly. "How did you find out where he was?"

Black put one of his claw-like hands inside his robes and took out a crumpled piece of paper, which he smoothed flat and held out to show the others. It was the photograph of Ron and his family that had appeared in the Daily Prophet the previous summer, and there, on Ron's shoulder, was Scabbers.

"How did you get this?" Lupin asked Black, thunderstruck.

"Fudge," said Black. "When he came to inspect Azkaban last year, he gave me his paper. And there was Peter, on the front page on this boy's shoulder... I knew him at once... how many times had I seen him transform? And the caption said the boy would be going back to Hogwarts...to where Harry and Lorena were…"

"My God," said Lupin softly, staring from Scabbers to the picture in the paper and back again. "His front paw..."

"What about it?" said Ron defiantly.

"His toe is missing," I said hollowly. All eyes flicked to me nervously. "The biggest bit they ever found of Pettigrew was a finger."

"Of course," Lupin breathed. "So simple... so brilliant... he cut it off himself?"

"Just before he transformed." Black nodded. "When I cornered him, he yelled for the whole street to hear that I'd betrayed Lily and James. Then, before I could curse him, he blew apart the street with the wand behind his back, killed everyone within twenty feet of himself - and sped down into the sewer with the other rats..."

"Look, Scabbers probably had a fight with another rat or something! He's been in my family for ages, right-"

"Twelve years, in fact," interjected Lupin.

"The maximum lifespan of a brown rat is three years," I said dully. "Most only last one in the wild."

"We – we've been taking good care of him!" floundered Ron.

I snorted. "You can't quadruple an animal's life with nothing but TLC, Ron."

"Not looking too good at the moment, though," Lupin continued. "I'd guess he's been losing weight ever since he heard Sirius was on the loose again..."

"He's been scared of that mad cat!" said Ron, nodding toward Crookshanks, who was still purring on the bed.

"We went into the pet shop because you wanted tonic for Scabbers. That's when Hermione got Crookshanks," I interjected again, my voice slightly stronger.

"This cat isn't mad," said Black hoarsely. He reached out a bony hand and stroked Crookshanks's fluffy head. "He's the most intelligent of his kind I've ever met. He recognized Peter for what he was right away. And when he met me, he knew I was no dog. It was a while before he trusted me...Finally, I managed to communicate to him what I was after, and he's been helping me..."

"What do you mean?" breathed Hermione.

"He tried to bring Peter to me, but couldn't...so he stole the passwords into Gryffindor Tower for me... As I understand it, he took them from a boy's bedside table... Peter got wind of what was going on and ran for it," croaked Black. "This cat - Crookshanks, did you call him? - told me Peter had left blood on the sheets... I suppose he bit himself... Well, faking his own death had worked once."

"And why did he fake his death?" Harry demanded furiously. "Because he knew you were about to kill him like you killed my parents!"

"No," protested Lupin, "Harry-"

"And now you've come to finish him off!"

"Yes, I have," said Black, with an evil look at Scabbers.

"Then I should've let Snape take you!" Harry shouted. I was on my feet in a flash at the mention of my professor.

"One… more... word…" I said darkly. "One more word that cuts them off, one more word that isn't necessary, and I swear, Harry, I'll put you down too. You're not the only one here that wants answers, so stop acting like it," I hissed. "If you keep yelling, we'll never get anywhere."

Harry was looking at me like I betrayed him, and for once, I couldn't bring myself to feel bad. If he wasn't so damn selfish, if he'd just think… but no, that was always me, never Harry. I was the one that analyzed situations to death, Harry just built up a head of steam and charged in. And in this particular situation, I was completely and utterly done with it.

"Harry," said Lupin hurriedly, "don't you see? All this time we've thought Sirius betrayed your parents, and Peter tracked him down - but it was the other way around, don't you see? Peter betrayed your mother and father - Sirius tracked Peter down-"

"That's not true!" Harry yelled. "He was their secret-keeper before he killed them! He said so before you turned up! He said he killed them!"

"Silencio!"

Harry gasped and mouth furiously, eyes burning with rage as he tried to speak but couldn't. his eyes darted around before landing on me. My wand was still pointed at him and my face was entirely unapologetic.

"I warned you," I said darkly.

"What the bloody hell are you doing?" Ron demanded furiously from the bed. I pointed my wand at him next and Ron paled.

"Quiet or you're next," I said coldly. I turned my wand on Black again. "Now talk, and talk fast."

"I as good as killed them," Black croaked, his eyes suddenly over-bright. "I persuaded Lily and James to change to Peter at the last moment, persuaded them to use him as Secret-Keeper instead of me... I'm to blame, I know it... The night they died, I'd arranged to check on Peter, make sure he was still safe, but when I arrived at his hiding place, he'd gone. Yet there was no sign of a struggle. It didn't feel right. I was scared. I set out for your parents' house straight away. And when I saw their house, destroyed, and their bodies...I realized what Peter must've done... what I'd done..." His voice broke. He turned away.

"Enough of this," said Lupin, and there was a steely note in his voice that was new. "There's one certain way to prove what really happened. Ron, give me that rat."

"What are you going to do with him if I give him to you?" Ron asked Lupin tensely.

"Force him to show himself," said Lupin. "If he really is a rat, it won't hurt him."

Ron hesitated. His eyes flicked to me. I don't know what my face looked like, but my wand was back on Ron. He paled and swallowed. Then at long last, he held out Scabbers and Lupin took him. Scabbers began to squeak without stopping, twisting and turning, his tiny black eyes bulging in his head. "Ready, Sirius?" asked Lupin.

Black had already retrieved Snape's wand from the bed. He approached Lupin and the struggling rat, and his wet eyes suddenly seemed to be burning in his face.

"Together?" he offered quietly.

"I think so," said Lupin, holding Scabbers tightly in one hand and his wand in the other. "On the count of three. One. Two. Three!"

A flash of blue-white light erupted from both wands. For a moment, Scabbers was frozen in midair, his small gray form twisting madly - Ron yelled - the rat fell and hit the floor. There was another blinding flash of light and…

It was like watching a speeded-up film of a growing tree. A head was shooting upward from the ground, limbs were sprouting… A moment later, a man was standing where Scabbers had been, cringing and wringing his hands. Crookshanks was spitting and snarling on the bed, the hair on his back was standing up.

He was a very short man, hardly taller than Harry and Hermione. His thin, colorless hair was unkempt and there was a large bald patch on top. He had the shrunken appearance of a plump man who has lost a lot of weight in a short time. His skin looked grubby, almost like Scabbers's fur, and something of the rat lingered around his pointed nose and his very small, watery eyes. He looked around at them all, his breathing fast and shallow. I saw his eyes dart to the door and back again.

"Well, hello, Peter," said Lupin pleasantly, as though rats frequently erupted into old school friends around him. "Long time, no see."

"S-Sirius... R-Remus..." Even Pettigrew's voice was squeaky. Again, his eyes darted toward the door. "My friends... my old friends..."

Black's wand arm rose, but Lupin seized him around the wrist, gave him a warning took, then turned again to Pettigrew, his voice light and casual.

"We've been having a little chat, Peter, about what happened the night Lily and James died. You might have missed the finer points while you were squeaking around down there on the bed-"

"Remus," gasped Pettigrew, and I could see beads of sweat breaking out over his pasty face, "you don't believe him, do you...? He tried to kill me, Remus..."

"So we've heard," said Lupin, more coldly. "I'd like to clear up one or two little matters with you, Peter, if you'll be so-"

"He's come to try and kill me again!" Pettigrew squeaked suddenly, pointing at Black, and I saw that he used his middle finger, because his index was missing. "He killed Lily and James and now he's going to kill me too...You've got to help me, Remus..."

Black's face looked more skull-like than ever as he stared at Pettigrew with his fathomless eyes.

"No one's going to try and kill you until we've sorted a few things out," soothed Lupin.

"Sorted things out?" squealed Pettigrew, looking wildly about him once more, eyes taking in the boarded windows and, again, the only door. "I knew he'd come after me! I knew he'd be back for me! I've been waiting for this for twelve years!"

"You knew Sirius was going to break out of Azkaban?" said Lupin, his brow furrowed. "When nobody has ever done it before?"

"He's got dark powers the rest of us can only dream of!" Pettigrew shouted shrilly. "How else did he get out of there? I suppose He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named taught him a few tricks!"

Black started to laugh, a horrible, mirthless laugh that filled the whole room. "Voldemort, teach me tricks?" he said. Pettigrew flinched as though Black had brandished a whip at him. "What, scared to hear your old master's name?" taunted Black. "I don't blame you, Peter. His lot aren't very happy with you, are they?

"Don't know what you mean, Sirius-" muttered Pettigrew, his breathing faster than ever. His whole face was shining with sweat now.

"You haven't been hiding from me for twelve years," guessed Black. "You've been hiding from Voldemort's old supporters. I heard things in Azkaban, Peter... They all think you're dead, or you'd have to answer to them... I've heard them screaming all sorts of things in their sleep. Sounds like they think the double-crosser double-crossed them. Voldemort went to the Potters' on your information... and Voldemort met his downfall there. And not all Voldemort's supporters ended up in Azkaban, did they? There are still plenty out here, biding their time, pretending they've seen the error of their ways. If they ever got wind that you were still alive, Peter-"

"Don't know... what you're talking about..." said Pettigrew again, more shrilly than ever. He wiped his face on his sleeve and looked up at Lupin. "You don't believe this - this madness, Remus-"

"I must admit, Peter, I have difficulty in understanding why an innocent man would want to spend twelve years as a rat," said Lupin evenly.

"Innocent, but scared!" squealed Pettigrew. "If Voldemort's supporters were after me, it was because I put one of their best men in Azkaban - the spy, Sirius Black!"

Black's face contorted. "How dare you," he growled, sounding suddenly like the bear-sized dog he had been. "I, a spy for Voldemort? When did I ever sneak around people who were stronger and more powerful than myself? But you, Peter – I'll never understand why I didn't see you were the spy from the start. You always liked big friends who'd look after you, didn't you? It used to be us... me and Remus... and James..."

Pettigrew wiped his face again. He was almost panting for breath. "Me, a spy... must be out of your mind... never... don't know how you can say such a-"

"Lily and James only made you Secret-Keeper because I suggested it," Black hissed, so venomously that Pettigrew took a step backward. "I thought it was the perfect plan... a bluff... Voldemort would be sure to come after me, would never dream they'd use a weak, talentless thing like you... It must have been the finest moment of your miserable life, telling Voldemort you could hand him the Potters."

Pettigrew was muttering distractedly. I caught words like far-fetched and lunacy, but I couldn't help paying more attention to the ashen color of Pettigrew's face and the way his eyes continued to dart toward the windows and door.

"Professor Lupin?" said Hermione timidly. Her eyes lingered on me and I felt a bit guilty for snapping at her earlier. "Can - can I say something?"

"Certainly, Hermione," allowed Lupin courteously.

"Well Scabbers, I mean, this - this man… he's been sleeping in Harry's dormitory for three years. If he's working for You-Know-Who, how come he never tried to hurt Harry before now?"

"There!" said Pettigrew shrilly, pointing at Ron with his maimed hand. "Thank you! You see, Remus? I have never hurt a hair of Harry's head! Why should I?"

"I'll tell you why," said Black. "Because you never did anything for anyone unless you could see what was in it for you. Voldemort's been in hiding for fifteen years, they say he's half dead. You weren't about to commit murder right under Albus Dumbledore's nose, for a wreck of a wizard who'd lost all of his power, were you? You'd want to be quite sure he was the biggest bully in the playground before you went back to him, wouldn't you? Why else did you find a wizard family to take you in? Keeping an ear out for news, weren't you, Peter? Just in case your old protector regained strength, and it was safe to rejoin him..."

Pettigrew opened his mouth and closed it several times. He seemed to have lost the ability to talk.

"Er - Mr. Black - Sirius?" said Hermione. Black jumped at being addressed like this and stared at Hermione as though he had never seen anything quite like her. "If you don't mind me asking, how - how did you get out of Azkaban, if you didn't use Dark Magic?"

"Thank you!" gasped Pettigrew, nodding frantically at her. "Exactly! Precisely what I-"

Lupin silenced him with a look. Black was frowning slightly at Hermione, but not as though he were annoyed with her. He seemed to be pondering his answer.

"I don't know how I did it," he said slowly. "I think the only reason I never lost my mind is that I knew I was innocent. That wasn't a happy thought, so the dementors couldn't suck it out of me... but it kept me sane and knowing who I am... helped me keep my powers... so when it all became... too much... I could transform in my cell... become a dog. dementors can't see, you know..." He swallowed and for the first time I understood the hell that Azkaban was. I could see it haunting Black's eyes. "They feel their way toward people by feeding off their emotions... They could tell that my feelings were less - less human, less complex when I was a dog... but they thought, of course, that I was losing my mind like everyone else in there, so it didn't trouble them. But I was weak, very weak, and I had no hope of driving them away from me without a wand...

"But then I saw Peter in that picture... I realized he was at Hogwarts with Harry... perfectly positioned to act, if one hint reached his ears that the Dark Side was gathering strength again…"

Pettigrew was shaking his head, mouthing noiselessly, but staring all the while at Black as though hypnotized.

"...ready to strike at the moment he could be sure of allies... and to deliver the last Potter to them. If he gave them Harry, who'd dare say he'd betrayed Lord Voldemort? He'd be welcomed back with honors...

"So you see, I had to do something. I was the only one who knew Peter was still alive... It was as if someone had lit a fire in my head, and the dementors couldn't destroy it... It wasn't a happy feeling... it was an obsession... but it gave me strength, it cleared my mind. So, one night when they opened my door to bring food, I slipped past them as a dog... It's so much harder for them to sense animal emotions that they were confused... I was thin, very thin... thin enough to slip through the bars... I swam as a dog back to the mainland... I journeyed north and slipped into the Hogwarts grounds as a dog. I've been living in the forest ever since, except when I came to watch the Quidditch, of course. You fly as well as your father did, Harry, Lorena..." He looked at Harry, who did not look away.

"Believe me," croaked Black. "Believe me, please. I never betrayed James and Lily. I would have died before I betrayed them."

I waited. My spell had long-since faded as my attention turned from it to the scene in front of me. Harry could speak, but he didn't. He didn't seem able to. He just nodded.

"No!"

Pettigrew had fallen to his knees as though Harry's nod had been his own death sentence. He shuffled forward on his knees, groveling, his hands clasped in front of him as though praying.

"Sirius – it's me... it's Peter... your friend... you wouldn't…"

Black kicked out and Pettigrew recoiled. "There's enough filth on my robes without you touching them," said Black coldly.

"Remus!" Pettigrew squeaked, turning to Lupin instead, writhing imploringly in front of him. "You don't believe this – wouldn't Sirius have told you they'd changed the plan?"

"Not if he thought I was the spy, Peter," countered Lupin. "I assume that's why you didn't tell me, Sirius?" he said casually over Pettigrew's head.

"Forgive me, Remus," said Black, shrugging sheepishly.

"Not at all, Padfoot, old friend," said Lupin, who was now rolling up his sleeves. "And will you, in turn, forgive me for believing you were the spy?"

"Of course," said Black, and the ghost of a grin flitted across his gaunt face. He, too, began rolling up his sleeves. "Shall we kill him together?"

"Yes, I think so," said Lupin grimly.

"You wouldn't... you won't..." gasped Pettigrew. And he scrambled around to Ron.

"Ron... haven't I been a good friend... a good pet? You won't let them kill me, Ron, will you... you're on my side, aren't you?"

But Ron was staring at Pettigrew with the utmost revulsion. "I let you sleep in my bed!" he said in disgust.

"Kind boy… kind master..." Pettigrew crawled toward Ron. "You won't let them do it... I was your rat... I was a good pet..."

"If you made a better rat than a human, it's not much to boast about, Peter," said Black harshly. Ron, going still paler with pain, wrenched his broken leg out of Pettigrew's reach. Pettigrew turned on his knees, staggered forward, and seized the hem of Hermione's robes.

"Sweet girl... clever girl... you - you won't let them... Help me..."

Hermione pulled her robes out of Pettigrew's clutching hands and backed away against the wall, looking horrified. Pettigrew knelt, trembling uncontrollably, and turned his head slowly toward me. He crawled forward on his knees. I had never seen a more pathetic sight. It disgusted me.

"Lorena… Rena… please, please… your mother was kind, you look like her… be kind…"

My wand flashed out and Pettigrew yelped as he was wrenched into the air by a Wingardium Leviosa. He hovered in midair, revolving on the spot as I slowly twirled my wand.

"You dare t o beg me for your life?" I asked quietly. "You are really desperate, aren't you?" I chuckled slightly. "You are the reason I don't have parents. You're the reason I grew up in that hellhole. You're the reason I can't go near a dementor without collapsing. You want me to be kind? My kindness would be your death – because if it was up to me, I'd want you to suffer."

I let Pettigrew drop to the floor with a crash. He crawled away from me desperately, horror on his face. I stared down my nose at him. Pettigrew crawled towards Harry, his last option.

"Harry... Harry... you look just like your father... just like him..."

"How dare you speak to them?" roared Black. "How dare you face them? How dare you talk about James and Lily in front of them?"

"Harry," whispered Pettigrew, shuffling toward him, hands outstretched. "Harry, James wouldn't have wanted me killed... James would have understood, Harry... he would have shown me mercy..."

Both Black and Lupin strode forward, seized Pettigrew's shoulders, and threw him backward onto the floor. He sat there, twitching with terror, staring up at them.

"You sold Lily and James to Voldemort," said Black, who was shaking too. "Do you deny it?"

Pettigrew burst into tears. It was horrible to watch, like an oversized, balding baby, cowering on the floor.

"Sirius, Sirius, what could I have done? The Dark Lord... you have no idea... he has weapons you can't imagine... I was scared, Sirius, I was never brave like you and Remus and James. I never meant it to happen... He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named forced me-"

"Don't lie!" bellowed Black. "You'd been passing information to him for a year before James and Lily died! You were his spy!"

"He - he was taking over everywhere!" gasped Pettigrew. "Whwhat was there to be gained by refusing him?"

"What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard who has ever existed?" said Black, with a terrible fury in his face. "Only innocent lives, Peter!"

"You don't understand!" whined Pettigrew. "He would have killed me, Sirius!"

"Then you should have died!" roared Black. "Died rather than betray your friends, as we would have done for you!"

Black and Lupin stood shoulder to shoulder, wands raised.

"You should have realized," said Lupin quietly, "if Voldemort didn't kill you, we would. Good-bye, Peter."

Hermione covered her face with her hands and turned to the wall.

"No!" Harry yelled. He ran forward, placing himself in front Pettigrew, facing the wands. "You can't kill him," he said breathlessly. "You can't."

Black and Lupin both looked staggered.

"Harry, this piece of vermin is the reason you have no parents," Black snarled. "This cringing bit of filth would have seen you die too, without turning a hair. You heard him. His own stinking skin meant more to him than your whole family."

"Harry," I said, my own wand raised. But for Harry in the way, it would have been directed at Pettigrew's heart. "Move. He deserves this, you know he does."

Harry's jaw hardened. His eyes blazed with determination and I could have screamed. He'd slipped fully into savior-mode. He wouldn't budge, not now that he'd gotten it in his head that he was doing something righteous.

"I'm not moving," Harry said firmly. My mouth twisted in anger but I couldn't say anything. I knew he was right. Watching death was one thing, dealing it out myself? Approving it? Even I wasn't that hard.

My wand lowered. "You always were the good one," I said bitterly. "But I won't let you turn him free."

"I know," Harry panted. "We'll take him up to the castle. We'll hand him over to the dementors... He can go to Azkaban... but don't kill him."

"Harry!" gasped Pettigrew, and he flung his arms around Harry's knees. "You - thank you – it's more than I deserve - thank you-"

"Get off me," Harry spat, throwing Pettigrew's hands off him in disgust. "I'm not doing this for you. I'm doing it because - I don't reckon my dad would've wanted them to become killers - just for you."

No one moved or made a sound except Pettigrew, whose breath was coming in wheezes as he clutched his chest. Black and Lupin were looking at each other. Then, with one movement, they lowered their wands.

"You two are the only people who have the right to decide," said Black. "But think... think what he did..."

"He can go to Azkaban," Harry repeated. "If anyone deserves that place, he does..."

Pettigrew was still wheezing behind him.

"Very well," said Lupin. "Stand aside, Harry." Harry hesitated. "I'm going to tie him up," promised Lupin. "That's all, I swear."

Harry stepped out of the way. Thin cords shot from Lupin's wand this time, and next moment, Pettigrew was wriggling on the floor, bound and gagged.

"But if you transform, Peter," growled Black, his own wand pointing at Pettigrew too, "we will kill you. You agree, Harry?"

Harry looked down at the pitiful figure on the floor and nodded so that Pettigrew could see him.

"Right," said Lupin, suddenly businesslike. "Ron, I can't mend bones nearly as well as Madam Pomfrey, so I think it's best if we just strap your leg up until we can get you to the hospital wing."

He hurried over to Ron, bent down, tapped Ron's leg with his wand, and muttered, "Ferula." Bandages spun up Ron's leg, strapping it tightly to a splint. Lupin helped him to his feet. Ron put his weight gingerly on the leg and didn't wince. I filed the spell away for later.

"That's better," Ron said gratefully. "Thanks."

"What about Professor Snape?" said Hermione in a small voice, looking down at Snape's prone figure.

"There's nothing seriously wrong with him," I said. "But he's still out cold. We probably shouldn't revive him until we're back to the castle," I admitted.

"We can take him like this..." Lupin offered. "Mobilicorpus." As though invisible strings were tied to Snape's wrists, neck, and knees, he was pulled into a standing position, head still lolling unpleasantly, like a grotesque puppet. He hung a few inches above the ground, his limp feet dangling. Lupin picked up the Invisibility Cloak and tucked it safely into his pocket.

"And two of us should be chained to this," said Black, nudging Pettigrew with his toe. "Just to make sure."

"I'll do it," said Lupin.

"And me," said Ron savagely, limping forward.

Black conjured heavy manacles from thin air. Soon Pettigrew was upright again, left arm chained to Lupin's right, right arm to Ron's left. Ron's face was set. He seemed to have taken Scabbers's true identity as a personal insult. Crookshanks leapt lightly off the bed and led the way out of the room, his bottlebrush tail held jauntily high.

I had never been part of a stranger group. Crookshanks led the way down the stairs. Lupin, Pettigrew, and Ron went next, looking like entrants in a six-legged race. Hermione lingered worriedly by Ron, who was struggling on his leg but determined. Next came Professor Snape, drifting creepily along, his toes hitting each stair as they descended, held up by his own wand, which was being pointed at him by Sirius. Harry and I brought up the rear.

Getting back into the tunnel was difficult. Lupin, Pettigrew, and Ron had to turn sideways to manage it. Lupin still had Pettigrew covered with his wand. I could see them edging awkwardly along the tunnel in single file. Crookshanks was still in the lead. Harry and I went right after Black, who was still making Snape drift along ahead of them. He kept bumping his lolling head on the low ceiling. I had the impression Black was making no effort to prevent this.

"Watch it, Sirius," I huffed as Snape's head took another whack. "He's been through enough."

Black jerked. He was probably surprised to hear me call him by his first name. I was too, to be honest, but… well, he was my godfather. I may have hit him, but even I wasn't so bitter as to ignore how amazing it was to find some kind of family outside of the Dursleys.

Black hesitated, but adjusted his wand so that Snape dodged the next root. I smiled slightly and saw him do the same out of the corner of my eye.

"You know what this means?" Black said abruptly to Harry and I as we made our slow progress along the tunnel. "Turning Pettigrew in?"

"You're free," said Harry.

"Not quite," I warned. "There will have to be an appeal… this isn't going to be fixed overnight."

"Yes..." admitted Black. "But I'm also - I don't know if anyone ever told you – I'm your godfather."

"Yeah, we knew that," said Harry.

"Well... your parents appointed me your guardian," said Black stiffly. "If anything happened to them..."

I realized what he was offering. Our parents had made provisions for us to stay with Black. So that meant that legally, once he was cleared, he would be our guardian and we could leave the Weasley's in the dust.

"I'll understand, of course, if you want to stay with your aunt and uncle," said Black. "But... well... think about it. Once my name's cleared... if you wanted a... a different home..."

"What - live with you?" Harry asked in disbelief, accidentally cracking his head on a bit of rock protruding from the ceiling. "Leave the Dursleys?"

"Of course, I thought you wouldn't want to," said Black quickly. "I understand, I just thought I'd-"

"Are you insane?" demanded Harry, his voice easily as croaky as Black's. Her looked at me, eyes wide with delight. Apparently I was forgiven for jumping all over him earlier. "Of course we want to leave the Dursleys! Have you got a house? When can we move in?"

Black turned right around to look at him. Snape's head was scraping the ceiling but Black didn't seem to care. I grabbed his wrist and lowered his hand slightly.

"You want to?" he asked, seeming torn between eagerness and disbelief. "You mean it?"

"Yeah, I mean it!" burst out Harry.

"From what I gather, we feel about like the Dursleys as you felt about your parents," I said drily. "Namely, that they can all fall down a well."

Black's gaunt face broke into the first true smile I had seen upon it. The difference it made was startling, as though a person ten years younger were shining through the starved mask. For a moment, he was recognizable as the man who was laughing in all of my pictures.

We did not speak again until we had reached the end of the tunnel. Crookshanks darted up first. He had evidently pressed his paw to the knot on the trunk, because Lupin, Pettigrew, and Ron clambered upward without any sound of savaging branches, Hermione darting out after them.

Black saw Snape up through the hole, then stood back for Harry and I to pass. At last, all of us were out.

The grounds were very dark now, the only light came from the distant windows of the castle. Without a word, we set off. Pettigrew was still wheezing and occasionally whimpering. My mind was buzzing. I couldn't imagine leaving the Dursleys, living in a home where someone cared about me, where I didn't have to scavenge for food.

"One wrong move, Peter," said Lupin threateningly ahead. His wand was still pointed sideways at Pettigrew's chest.

Silently we tramped through the grounds, the castle lights growing slowly larger. Snape was still drifting weirdly ahead of Black, his chin bumping on his chest. And then a cloud shifted. There were suddenly dim shadows on the ground. Our party was bathed in moonlight.

Snape collided with Lupin, Pettigrew, and Ron, who had stopped abruptly. Black froze. He flung out one arm to make Harry and I stop. Harry seized the startled Hermione and dragged her back.

Lupin had gone rigid. His limbs began to shake.

"Oh, my-" Hermione gasped. "He didn't take his potion tonight! He's not safe!"

"Run," Black whispered. "Run. Now." He ran forwards, clutching Lupin and keeping him upright as he shuddered and panted. I lunged forwards and brandished my wand. "Alohamora!" Ron was disconnected from Pettigrew and, more importantly, from Lupin.

"You know the man you truly are Remus," Black babbled, trying to reason with him, but I knew it was useless. You couldn't talk someone out of a lycanthropic transformation. "This heartis where you live, this heart!"

Harry grabbed Ron and helped me drag him away. There was a terrible snarling noise. Lupin's head was lengthening. So was his body. His shoulders were hunching. Hair was sprouting visibly on his face and hands, which were curling into clawed paws. His wand fell away from his hands. Crookshanks's hair was on end again and he was backing away.

As the werewolf reared, snapping its long jaws, Sirius transformed. The enormous, bear-like dog bounded forward. As the werewolf wrenched itself free of the manacle binding it, the dog seized it about the neck and pulled it backward, away from Ron and Pettigrew. They were locked, jaw to jaw, claws ripping at each other.

"Harry!"

Pettigrew had dived for Lupin's dropped wand. There was a bang and Crookshanks flew into the air and back to the earth in a heap. Lupin flung Sirius off of him, the dog skidding through the grass.

"Expelliarmus!" Harry yelled, pointing his own wand at Pettigrew. Lupin's wand flew high into the air and out of sight. "Stay where you are!" Harry shouted, running forward.

Too late. Pettigrew had transformed. With a flick of the bald, worm-like tail that gave him his name, Pettigrew was gone into the grass.

"Potter!"

Snape was finally awake. Enraged, he appeared in front of Harry in a swirl of robes and seized the front of his shirt, lifting him nearly fully off the ground. "There you are," he snarled angrily.

He would have said more, but at that moment Lupin roared loudly. Snape whirled around and I saw his eyes widen in something like recognition and fear, then narrow in determination. He seized my arm and yanked me behind him, throwing out both limbs and standing in front of us four students protectively.

Lupin didn't like the gesture. He roared again and gave a swipe. Snape staggered backwards into us. I lost my footing as he tried to grab my shoulder to keep himself upright and was dragged down and turned. The back of my head smacked against something hard, my ears rang, and then everything was black.

()()()()()

Waking up in the hospital wing was nothing new to me, unfortunately. I was even used to the pile of presents at the foot of it. The bouquet from Zabini, the familiar and mysterious white tulips. A pair of wrapped books that were probably from Nott and Daphne. A couple of Chocolate Frogs from Lily and Tracey and a bag of Zonko's products from the twins.

What was new was Professor Snape sitting stiffly in a chair beside my bed.

"You will no doubt be pleased to know that Black has escaped," he said through clenched teeth. "As has the beast of Hagrid's that was to be killed."

My face brightened. I remembered rushing from Hagrid's Cabin and hearing the dull swish and thunk of an axe, but I'd turned away at the last moment… so had Buckbeak escaped? Then the black dog had come… everything from the Shrieking Shack flooded back to me and my eyes widened.

"Sir, are you alright?" I asked worriedly. "You got tossed into a wall and then Lupin took a swipe at you…"

Snape's jaw tightened. "I am fine, Potter," he snapped. "You, on the other hand, took a nasty bump to your head from a knot on the Whomping Willow."

As if reminding me of its presence, my head throbbed. I winced, gingerly reaching up to touch the back of my head. The lump was gone, but it still hurt.

From within his robes, Snape pulled a vial of potion and passed it to me. I took a moment to glance at it, recognized it as a Pain-Relief Potion, and downed it in one gulp. I grimaced, ready for the taste, but blinked. Instead of tasting like something a cat hacked up, it tasted pleasantly like cherry. I got the distinct impression that Snape had brewed this up specifically for me.

"Thanks sir," I said, smiling slightly and passing the vial back to him.

"I didn't do anything, Potter," Snape said coolly, shoving the stopper back into the bottle. He rose in a flourish of robes. "Feel better," he said shortly, and vanished through the curtains. I sighed as the throbbing in my head began to ease and then turned to the pile of goodies at the foot of my bed. Cheerfully, I grabbed a Chocolate Frog and popped it open. I caught the frog before it could leap away and bit off the head, chewing the chocolate and swallowing in satisfaction, closing my eyes.

"Is he gone?"

I opened one eye and saw Harry lingering at the end of my bed. Like me, he was in the standard hospital pajamas. I assumed he meant Snape.

"Yeah, he's gone," I said softly, reminded of my actions in the Shrieking Shack. "Harry, listen…"

Harry held up his hand. "It's… it's okay," he assured me. "I know that we handle things differently. WE're twins, but we're different people. I should… I should consider you moreoften."

I smiled slightly. "And I should learn not to let my temper get the best of me," I said sheepishly.

Harry grinned slightly. "Well, you are a redhead…"

"Oi!" I chucked another Chocolate Frog at him. He caught it and popped it open, biting into the frog.

"But that's not all. You're not going to believe it, but listen to this…"


So here it is, the Shrieking Shack! Just imagine that after this Harry explained all about the Time Turner. A good opening to To Be a Student, which won the poll, narrowly beating out Interludes. It came out to about 18,700 words, which is crazy! I should be back on To Be a Slytherin after the New Year. I'll probably post her sporadically as inspiration strikes. As always, feel free to request thing you'd like to see here and I'll see what I can do.