The last of the shine of Christmas holidays dulled to cold, white January. It was in this rather glum mood that Remus Lupin, Sirius Black, James Potter, and Peter Pettigrew made their way from Hogwarts castle to the edge of the Forbidden Forest, where Professor Grubbly-Plank was holding the 7th year Care of Magical Creatures class.
Remus was glancing over his shoulder to where Sirius's cousin, Bellatrix Lestrange's sister, that Narcissa Black, was picking her way through the snow behind them. She was following too close, as if trying to eavesdrop. All over wizarding Britain, things were unsettled and ominous, even here at school. They seemed especially so now that the girl who had always ignored the lads in spite of being Sirius's cousin, was suddenly at their heels.
"It's just odd that old Dumbledore is being so gutless about it. He had all of Christmas holidays to take some kind of stand and as far as we know, he's done nothing at all," Sirius was saying, impatient for someone with real power to lash out at the pure-blood viciousness that had driven him to leave home while he was still in school.
"Not so very odd," Peter said. "Dumbledore loves his secrets."
"Will you all please stop talking about it," Remus said. "We're not in private here. And anyways, we'll do well to trust him and follow his lead."
Again, Remus glanced over his shoulder at Narcissa, the girl with a family full of Death Eaters, the girl wearing Lucius Malfoy's engagement ring while she listened in on them. Malfoy had only graduated a few years earlier and he was already a known Death Eater. Everyone associated with him was dangerous. And why wasn't Narcissa walking to class with Severus Snape, as she usually did?
James answered, as if reading his mind, growling as he said, "What's got me cross with Dumbledore is that he's let Snape transfer out of this class and into Divination in the middle of the year. He's there with Lily right now."
"At least we get a break from his ugly mug for one more class a day," Sirius said. "And it's not like Evans is going to fall in love with him if he bats his eyes at her over a crystal ball."
James smirked. "Bats."
They came to a halt in the ring of students gathered around Professor Grubbly-Plank. She stood over a long table stocked with boxes set at intervals. Each box was large enough to store a hat in, and every moment or so, they would jerk, as if gathering strength to jump off the table and disappear into the forest.
"My apologies," she was saying. "This year's early cold snap drove most of the country's Hodags into stasis before we could secure a supply of them, so you will have to double up for today's lesson."
"Not Hodags again," Sirius groaned. The last time they had trifled with these little dragon-like frogs, half the class ended up inhaling enough of the powder that sloughed off Hodag horns to keep them wide awake for a week.
"Yes, after last term's poor showing, we are redoing Hodag care. Mind your masks, this time," Grubbly-Plank ordered. "Keep those noses and mouths covered. Now pair up."
"There goes Pete," Sirius smirked as Peter left without a word to team up with Alice Fortescue. For Peter, the best thing about Care of Magical Creatures class was that Frank Longbottom didn't take it but Alice did. Now that both of them had got over their mutual shyness, Frank and Alice had been inseparable all year. But Peter still hadn't given up hope of them splitting up. Just in case they did, he made himself available to Alice whenever he could.
Remus shook his head as Peter popped up at Alice's side, blushing and beaming, telling her how smashing she'd been at the dueling club before Christmas though she hardly remembered now.
Sirius watched them over Remus's shoulder. "Sad," he said. "Longbottom's the perfect match for that girl. Pete has got to let that go."
"Nah, it could pay off yet," James said.
Sirius scoffed. "Your relationship trajectory with Evans isn't normal. You know that, don't you?" he said. "You shouldn't be encouraging him."
"It's not like I'm - "
"Excuse me, gents."
The lads startled at the sound of a smooth, almost drawling woman's voice speaking to them. It was Narcissa Black, standing at Remus's elbow saying, "The four of us are the only ones left without partners. So do tell me how you'd rather we divide yourselves up."
It took a moment for them to understand. Before Snape transferred to Divination, the class had an odd number of students, so the three of them always worked as a trio. Now the numbers were even, and someone would have to work with Snape's abandoned partner, Narcissa.
It wouldn't be Sirius, her estranged cousin. He spun on his heel, his back to her as he stared at nothing between the forest's trees. James could do it pleasantly enough, but he was having a hard time not babbling about Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix and all sorts of other things it wouldn't do for a Death Eater sympathizer like Narcissa Black to hear, so Remus volunteered himself.
A small smile curved sideways across her sharp, white, but pretty face as he offered. "Well then, Lupin," she said, speaking his name in a low voice, as if to say it too loudly would be to reveal too much, "let's be off."
With raised eyebrows, James watched them walk to the last remaining unattended box.
Sirius spun back around to huff at the sight of Remus following Narcissa, Remus absently fingering the scar on his face as he went. "I thought for sure she would have insisted on you, James, what with all the stories about Remus being…corrupted."
James laughed. "You jealous, Padfoot?"
Sirius punched at him and nearly upset their quivering Hodag box.
"Now, remember," Grubbly-Plank said, "even in your mask, you must take great care. Gloves on, one partner restrains the Hodag, the other files the powder from the horns. Collect every grain of it in a vial. Like so."
There was a great deal of grumbling as the partnerships donned their protective gear and got into position.
"Right," Grubbly-Plank resumed. "Restraining partner, grasp your Hodag by its back legs and by the scruff below its neck spines. Carefully now…"
Without negotiating who would do what, Remus grabbed and restrained their creature. Narcissa lifted the file as if it was the stem of a wine glass, twirling it daintily between her fingers as she regarded Remus struggling to hold the Hodag still.
"If you don't mind," he said. "The sooner you can manage it the better."
Narcissa stepped closer. The Hodag must have had its horns filed before and knew to thrash its head, driving its neck spines against Remus's gloves.
His manner of gentle coaxing was gone. "For stars' sake, get in here, Black, before this beast shreds my glove away."
In a rush, she crowded into him, tall enough for her hair to be in his face, tickling his nose. Her smell came with it, perfumed with the flowers she was named for. Everything about her made Remus want to shout out a sneeze. He drew in a deep breath and blew out a puff of air to clear her hair from his face.
She flinched. "What are you doing back there, Lupin?"
"Maintaining a respectable distance," he said. "One that wouldn't disgust your husband."
Narcissa clucked her tongue. "Lucius Malfoy is not my husband."
"Good as," he said.
"Come, Lupin," she said, "I expected for you to have a better understanding of the Black family temperament than that. We're not so easy to predict or control. Not even with arranged marriages. Hasn't Sirius told you about my sister Andromeda who abandoned us to marry someone with a more interesting background than my parents preferred?"
Actually, he hadn't, knowing Remus wouldn't have cared. "You haven't even started filing yet, have you?" he said through gritted teeth.
"Yes of course I have," she said. "Doff your mask and take a deep breath if you don't believe it. You won't sleep the rest of the week."
As she worked, they stood without talking, her back tilted against his arm as they hovered over the poor struggling creature. Remus turned his face as far away from her as he could.
"This one has been mistreated, I think," she said. "They're not supposed to mind this so much. They usually tolerate it as you or I would a fingernail trim. I mean," she said, glancing over her shoulder at him, "I assume nail care is the same for you as it would be for the rest of us."
Remus's cheeks flamed red, but he wouldn't give her the satisfaction of an offended response. He did look over at where James and Sirius were working. Sirius returned the look, his lip curled. Of course Narcissa had wanted to work with Remus. Why settle for simply spying on them when she could peeve her cousin at the same time by encroaching on his best friend. It was nothing Sirius could reasonably complain about, just enough fake smiling and real touching to irk him.
"Look at the poor thing," she said, drawing Remus's attention back to the Hodag.
Remus peered over her shoulder. "Is it injured?" he asked.
She shook her head, fine, fragrant platinum hair wafting into Remus's face again. "Not anymore. But it once was. See here, this horn was ground down to the quick at one time. It's healed now but it would have bled and hurt. There now, we've finished. Let the creature go."
He yanked his gloved hands away as Narcissa closed the box. She was calling Grubbly-Plank over to explain the animal's trauma, insisting it not be used for student training anymore. When she had finished and Grubbly-Plank was walking away with the boxed Hodag they'd rescued, Narcissa turned her face up to Remus, smiling as if she expected to be applauded.
"You see, Lupin," she said. "I have rather an affinity for magical creatures. I'm veritably dripping with compassion for them."
He scoffed. "As long as they keep to pure bloodlines. Isn't that what you mean to say?"
She laughed. "Oh no. Blood purity is just an ideological smokescreen for old fashioned classism. Or didn't you know? If anyone was serious about it, there would be no room for the Black family in the movement. Our genealogy is clear of Muggles, for the most part, but things get murky where magical creatures are concerned. Why, eight great-grandmothers back on my mother's line, there's a Veela. Not many traces of it left in my generation, though some people claim they can tell. Can you believe it, Lupin?"
As she said it, she pulled one of her long, gleaming hairs from the shoulder of Remus's shabby winter cloak. She held it over the snow and let it fall, white on white, disappearing.
By midnight, it was clear that in spite of their masks and the fact that they had worked outside in the fresh air, everyone in seventh year Care of Magical Creatures had inhaled too much Hodag horn powder to sleep that night. Professor Grubbly-Plank was immune to it by now, and before she went to bed, she called on the Head Boy and Girl to gather all the affected students into the prefects' lounge and keep them there, where they wouldn't disturb anyone until they either fell asleep or breakfast began, whichever came first.
It was 1am and Lily Evans was yawning hard by the time they knocked at the last house, the entrance to Slytherin which was disguised as a blank wall in the dungeons.
"You can go to bed, Evans," James said. "It's not like you were exposed to Hodag powder today."
"Trying to get rid of me?" she said through the last of the yawn.
"Get rid of you?" James raved. "Definitely not. I've hardly seen you since our nine hundred school children came back from holidays."
Lily laughed. "I'll come to the lounge and sit awhile once we get Narcissa. But just so you can see me."
The door to Slytherin was still unopened. "Maybe we should just leave her here. She's the only Slytherin in class so it's not like she'll be up causing a racket in there by herself," James said.
As he said it, the stone wall grated and shifted and Narcissa Black was standing in the doorway, dressed like an old-fashioned glamorous Muggle film star in a gauzy, billowing fur trimmed dressing gown.
"Oh, you've already gone to bed - " James began.
"I have not," Narcissa snapped. "It's the Hodags, isn't it? Is everyone else awake too?"
Lily tried to answer but ended up yawning again.
"Everyone from class, yes," James said for her. "They've sent us to the prefects' lounge to wait it out, but you seem comfortable here so - "
"So I will join the rest of you, of course," Narcissa finished. She sniffed as she looked Lily over from head to toe. "There's no need for the pair of you to wait for me. I'll be along after I get changed."
The door closed and James took Lily's hand, dragging her toward the stairwell out of the dungeon. At the bottom of the stairs she sighed heavily, as if the climb would be too much.
"You want me to carry you?" he said. "No one's awake at this hour but the seventh year Magical Creatures class, all of whom are technically adult wizards and witches, not giggling kids."
"Fine, James," she said. "But just up the stairs. I'll walk on my own when we get to the entrance hall."
She stepped onto the first stair, a better height from which to get onto James's back. With her arms around his neck she slumped against him and lifted her legs, one at a time, into his waiting hands. She was still dressed in her uniform, and neither of them was quite prepared for the jolt between them as his hands held her by the tender bare skin behind her knees. Lily gave a breathy gasp and James gave her a light toss, bracing her higher against himself. She let her breath out with the movement, settling in, humming against the nape of his neck.
James forced a cough. "Right. Up we go."
He took the stairs slowly, opting for keeping her comfortable over showing off by taking them at a run. "No, the only one spying on us tonight is Narcissa herself," he said. "She partnered up with Remus in class, which couldn't be avoided now that Snape's followed you to Divination class. But there's no need for her to be needling poor Remus about - his condition, not to mention her trying to goad Sirius into a family row."
Lily answered with another hum, her lips grazing his neck. "Is she a Death Eater?"
"Good as," James said. "Since the beginning of the year, she's been engaged to that nasty Malfoy, hasn't she?"
"I remember when he went here," she murmured. "Lucius Malfoy, he was good to Severus."
James shuddered, as if remembering something unpleasant. "Wasn't he just."
They had finished climbing the stairs but James didn't mention it, and Lily was too sleepy to notice. It wasn't until they were at the door of the prefects' lounge that he turned his face toward hers, nudging her cheek with his nose. "Lily," he said. "Lily, love, if you don't want them to see me carrying you…"
As he stood jostling her gently, trying to wake her, Remus opened the door, clear-eyed and wakeful with Hodag powder. He laughed at the sight of sleepy Lily. "Let her go to bed, James."
"I told her to. She's the one who insisted on coming back here with me."
She was awake now. "Oh, we're here."
James set her feet on the ground, and Remus shook his head, holding the door as they came inside. He was about to close it when in the distance, at the end of the corridor, a ghostly pale, willowy figure appeared - Narcissa Black.
Hang it, why did James have to go down to Slytherin for her?
He didn't wait, but let the door close just as he could discern the features on her face.
Inside, the room was still a rowdy mess. It was due partly to the Hodag powder and partly to the fact that most of the students who stayed in Care of Magical Creatures until seventh year were from Gryffindor and Hufflepuff houses. There was spirited, noisy chatter, intermittent singing, at least two quaffles being thrown across the room at any time, and the lads playing a game of terribly unskilled wizards' chess where someone's pieces were getting smashed to bits every turn while the players groaned and cheered.
James shooed a game of catch off a sofa and led Lily to lie down on it. "Sit with me while I sleep," she said, snagging his hand as he turned to leave her in peace, heading to where the lads sat teaching Alice Fortescue to play chess.
He stayed at her side. "I am. Make room."
"You don't need room," she said, sitting up slightly, pushing him against the back of the sofa and settling her head on his thigh like a pillow. "There."
James was frantically pulling his jumper over his head, folding it into a better, less provocative pillow for her face in his lap. "You are the bossiest, handsy-est sleeper I have ever known," he said, letting his own hand rest on her side as she quieted and went back to sleep.
Sirius looked up from where he and Remus were pulverizing Alice and Peter on the chessboard. "So you're stuck sitting over there, are you James?"
Remus looked up as well. "I'll fetch you a book, shall I? Good time to get caught up on some potions theory?"
"Thanks, lads. But there's lots to keep me busy here." And with that, James began to fashion little braids into Lily's hair.
"Pete, honestly," Sirius said, turning back to the game. "Poor Alice couldn't have a worse teacher. Look at that - Remus, do you want to do the honours or shall I?"
Remus slapped Sirius hard on the back. "You deserve it, mate. Let them have it."
Sirius moved a rook. "Checkmate."
"No," Peter and Alice said together. It may have been the loudest any of them had ever heard her speak.
"Oh, Peter, we've lost, and in spectacular form," she said, briefly dropping a hand on his arm. His face flushed red and he began to stammer.
Remus rushed in to save him. "Seems your formidable real life dueling skills don't quite transfer into chess play, eh Alice? At least, not yet."
"No, I'll have to get Frank to learn to play first if I want to be any good. I was never much of a duelist until I partnered with him either," she said.
"Really?" Sirius squinted, as if scanning his memory for some trace of what Alice was like before Frank. Strangely to him, but not strange for any small, mousy girl who's ever got a boyfriend, Sirius couldn't remember anything about Alice before Frank, and then Peter paid attention to her.
At the mention of Frank, Peter's rosy flush was cooling into a sick green. Remus opened his mouth to save him again, but Sirius had already rushed into the gap.
"So you and Frank," he said to Alice, "after graduation, are the pair of you going off to put that team dueling finesse to good use at Auror training, aren't you?"
"Well, yes, we've certainly applied to the program. Time will tell," she said, though it was all modesty. She and Frank were unbeatable at dueling, and even if they weren't, Frank's mother had influence everywhere.
"Quite the love story, these two," Marlene McKinnon said, squeezing herself into the extremely small space between Sirius and Remus.
"What, us?" Sirius said, waving over her head at Remus.
"No, you thick git," she said. "Alice and Frank. Tell them about those tea leaves, Alice. The ones the lady at that lovely tea shop in Islington read for you over Christmas. It was so romantic - "
Alice was on her feet. "Actually, I think I'll head back to the tower, to bed. I'm rather tired now. I think the Hodag powder is wearing off."
"I can't be," Marlene argued. "Look at everyone else. They're all - "
Her words were cut off by a mighty yawn from Peter. "No, I think Alice is right. She had the same Hodag as me and I'm knackered too. Must not have been a very strong creature we had."
Alice beamed at him, grateful for an excuse not to stay and discuss her last tea leaf reading, the one about Frank and her future with him.
As for Peter, his colour was returning to red again. And just as he was about to follow Alice out the door, he flung one parting rude gesture at Sirius before blowing him a kiss.
Marlene snorted behind her hand. "Poor Peter. I don't know how much plainer we can make it that Alice is taken. Locked up for life with dear old Frank Longbottom."
Sirius dismissed the subject by faking a sad sigh. "Did you see Pete as he left? Looks like that was the only kiss I'll be getting tonight. Kissed off by Peter Pettigrew."
Marlene groaned as if exasperated, pushing herself back onto her feet. "Shut up, Black. And meet me behind that sofa in one minute."
Sirius passed his minute snickering to himself about his coming date behind the sofa and helping Remus restore the chess set to working order.
"Marlene's just as reckless as you are," Remus said as he stood the last black pawn on its square. "I worry about her."
"Her? Shouldn't you be worried about me?"
"Who says I'm not," Remus answered. "And I don't just mean your noncommittal snogging escapades. I mean - everything. If she's already part of - the you-know-what, then she's a walking target for the you-know-whos."
"Speaking of which," Sirius shuddered. "Here's my beloved coz. I'll be off then."
Remus looked up to see Narcissa taking a seat on the opposite end of the refreshed chess board. He lunged at the fleeing Sirius. "Rus - don't - " But Sirius was gone.
Narcissa gathered her shining hair in her hands and tossed it down her back. "Well, here's something I haven't touched since I was a child. Wizards' chess. I wonder if I still remember how to play."
"I'm sure you do," Remus said, rising onto his knees, as if to stand.
"Please, Lupin," she said, her long, thin fingers closed on his sleeve of his jumper. "Do me the honour of slaughtering me in a chess match. I'm certain it will be easy for you, and won't take too much of your time."
He glanced around the room for an excuse to leave the chess board. All of his mates were busy with girls. Quaffles were no longer flying around. No one but Lily Evans was asleep yet, but things were beginning to quiet down. He sank to sitting. What could Narcissa learn over a game of chess that might help the Death Eaters anyway? "Fine. You're white. You lead out."
Without the slightest pause, Narcissa lifted a knight. "I remember these ones. They move in that funny L-shape and can vault over the rest." She kept the piece in her hand, not yet choosing which of the two possible squares on which to land it. "They're the best pieces, part human, part beast."
Remus let out his breath. "I'll find you another opponent."
"You will not," she said in a cool, even voice, setting her knight down in front of her row of pawns. "You've nothing more to lose in speaking to me. I already know what you are. I've seen the register, the one your parents were forced to sign your name to after your - accident."
Remus ran both of his hands through his hair. "Look, you can tell them I won't join them. And I'm sure there's no shortage of volunteers for them among my kind. I can't imagine why they'd trouble themselves to seek me out as - "
"Lupin, look at me," she said. She sat up straight, pushing her fitted black sleeves to her elbows, first the right and then, the left. The flesh of the inner sides of her arms was white, unblemished by anything. Skin like that gets called ivory, alabaster, but it made Remus think of neither of these. It didn't look hard, brittle. Even from where he sat, he could tell it was soft, warm. Inside his mouth, the end of his tongue edged against the tip of one of his canine teeth. In revealing her arms, she was showing him she hadn't taken the Death Eaters' mark. It was an attempt at showing that she might be neutral. It was not intended as seduction.
It was not…
Even if it was, he'd decided years ago he'd never touch anyone sensually. No one but Sirius and only when he was safely transfigured into Padfoot and Remus was in his human form. It would be an exchange of warmth, scratches and petting, sleep. Yes, everyone assumed he was comforting poor homeless Sirius when they sat together like that. Maybe it was mutually beneficial, but it was the only physical love Remus could trust himself to take from anyone else. A love his inner monster would never lash out at in savage hunger or simply out of unguarded carelessness.
"I have no idea what they would want from you. It has nothing to do with me," Narcissa said, drawing his gaze back to her face. "But I need to ask something of you myself."
Without a word, Remus moved a black pawn, opening the path before his left bishop.
Narcissa's second knight hopped into play. "My Veela ancestry - my mother says it's diluted to nothing, and it's sick of me to keep mentioning it, like I'm trying to bring it on just by wishing it. But it's not a wish. It's real magic. I feel Veela in me. Strongly, to the point where I wonder if I'm going mad."
"Maybe you are," Remus said, his tone flat as he inched the pawn forward, into the path of Narcissa's knight.
"Maybe I am," she agreed, taking the pawn without pausing. "I need to know for certain. Is there any trace of a Veela left in me. And if there is," she paused to take a huge breath, watching her knight striking the pawn to rubble. "If it is there, I need to reconsider my betrothal to Lucius."
Remus scoffed. Moving another pawn out to threaten Narcissa's knight. The chess game was another bloodbath, both of them rushing through it killing and being killed.
"There are several possibilities," she went on. "One, I'm not a Veela and so Lucius is right not to sense it in me, and I should set my feelings aside and stay with him. Two, I am a Veela but it's lost on Lucius, wasted, and I should leave him."
"Or three," Remus said, "you should get over yourself and trust that bloody Malfoy accepts you for whatever you are and set up housekeeping like a good Black family girl."
She laughed as his bishop moved nose to nose with her second knight. "Whatever the options are, my being a Veela needs to be ruled out or in. And that is where I come to you."
She hadn't moved her knight. He ought to take it with his bishop but it felt like a trap. He hesitated, saying nothing, finding it difficult to think through the consequences of the carnage on the board.
"I've never had a wizard, no matter what his blood status, show any response when I - when I call forth my inner Veela. Stars, I sound ridiculous," she said, sitting back from the chess board and hiding her face in her hands. "But you're not exactly a typical wizard, are you Lupin. You're partly a magical creature, one that looks human most of the time, like a Veela, only - "
"A cursed creature," Lupin said. "And yes, this is ridiculous. Utterly."
"Lupin," she said, scooting around the board to sit next to him, her hand on his sleeve again. "I want to know if your creature status allows you to sense the same thing in me - "
"It doesn't," he said, speaking much louder than her, straining as if to get away.
"I don't mean now, or here," she said, glancing around the room. "There's magic to - to what I do. It's something only done in private - "
"Absolutely not - "
"I don't mean it - like that," she said. "I won't compromise you. Just let me show you."
"Go show a mermaid, or a centaur, or any number of other partially human magical creatures around here then - "
"I'm not looking to be drowned or carried off," she said.
"But savaged by a werewolf is fine with you?" he said, his face close to hers as he hissed his whispered answer.
She lifted her chin, bringing them even closer. "Perhaps it is."
Remus sat back, clucking his tongue in frustration. "You have no idea, you foolish girl. If you must have a werewolf for your test, find another one. I'm sure your husband knows plenty of us."
"But you're right here - "
"And I said, no." It was his final word. He stood up and walked to the sofa Sirius was lying behind and leaned over it. "Oi, I'm going up to bed."
Sirius sat up. "Right, I'll come with. Marlene's fallen to sleep anyway. Hey, what do you reckon? Could a good kiss be an antidote for Hodag powder?"
Behind himself, Remus could hear Narcissa Black restoring the broken chess pieces. "I guess we'll never know."