The trio was almost back to Gryffindor Tower when they ran into Professor McGonagall, and the look on her face made Harry immediately wish for his invisibility cloak. Unfortunately, his dad's old cloak was packed safely away in his trunk with all his other school stuff; it had been sent ahead while he went straight to dinner, and he hadn't even thought that he might want it in his first few hours back at Hogwarts. However, the stern head of Gryffindor House was frowning deeply as they approached, and he began to wish that he could sink right into the floor since disappearing didn't seem to be an option.
"There you are, Mr. Potter," McGonagall said pointedly, standing right between the trio and the Fat Lady's portrait. "We've been looking for you."
Harry swallowed. "We were just catching up a little, Professor," he replied lamely.
"It's my fault, Professor McGonagall," Hermione piped up earnestly. "It's been so long, and I just wanted to talk to Harry and Ron alone—"
"Let it rest, Ms. Granger," the deputy headmistress interjected. "It might have worked during your first year, but you are no longer innocent enough to take the blame for these two's foibles."
Hermione blushed, but McGonagall glanced at Ron, studying his face for a long moment before speaking to Harry once more. Her eyes narrowed. "You told them, did you?"
"Yes, Professor." What else could he say? One simply didn't lie to that woman.
"Well." She pursed her lips unhappily and then turned back to Ron, her decision made. "In that case, Mr. Weasley, I believe it is time for you to fetch your rat."
"Now?" Ron squeaked. He was still swallowing the truth, Harry knew, and really wouldn't believe that "Scabbers" was Peter Pettigrew until he saw it with his own eyes. That, however, was a feeling that Harry understood completely. Sirius had shown him the Daily Prophet picture and explained for hours, but even then a part of Harry had a hard time believing that his best friend's rat was really a murderer in disguise. "Scabbers" had slept in the same dorm room as Harry for two years and had never done anything more monumental than serve as a poor guinea pig for Ron's various attempts at transfiguration.
"Yes, now." McGonagall gave Ron a hard look. "Go quickly, and then I will bring the three of you to the headmaster's office."
"Yes, Professor." Arguing with McGonagall was like opposing a force of nature, and two years at Hogwarts had taught all three of them not to bother. Ron bolted for the portrait hole right away, muttering the password and disappearing inside. Harry and Hermione moved to follow, but a raised hand from their professor stopped the pair in their tracks.
"I'm certain that Mr. Weasley can fetch a rat by himself," she pointed out "And his doing so alone has less chance of alerting Mr. Pettigrew to what is going on."
It was the first time Harry had heard her say the traitor's name, and as Hermione nodded their acquiescence, he contemplated the feelings behind McGonagall's words. Normally dispassionate and scrupulously fair, the Transfiguration professor rarely allowed her students to know her opinions about other people. In fact, Harry had never heard her speak unkindly about another adult—but he noticed the tight manner in which she said Pettigrew's name. There was distaste in her words, maybe even hatred. Sirius had once mentioned that McGonagall had been his own Head of House at Hogwarts, which meant that she'd known and taught Pettigrew. Did she hate him, too? Before that moment, Harry would have thought that impossible, but now it seemed likely. Anger, too, was buried beneath her calm face.
Ron returned quickly, holding a squirming "Scabbers" in his hands. In response to Hermione's questioning glance, he explained. "Crookshanks tried to eat him again." Ron's voice turned dark. "I'm starting to agree with that mad cat."
Hermione laughed nervously. "Maybe we should bring him," she suggested thoughtfully. "In case P—Scabbers tries to run away."
"Somehow I do not believe that will be a problem," McGonagall replied dryly.
Harry opened his mouth to object, and then shut it with a snap, remembering McGonagall's Animagus form. Surprisingly, their Transfiguration professor chuckled upon seeing the look on his face.
"Ten points to Gryffindor, Mr. Potter," she said with a slight smile. "Seeing as how I am much less likely to eat 'Scabbers' than Ms. Granger's erstwhile pet is."
The boys snickered, and even Hermione laughed, but the moment of humor passed quickly enough once they all remembered what their purpose really was. "Come," McGonagall said abruptly, turning and sweeping down the hall without waiting to see if they were following. "There is much to be done, and others are waiting."
Others? The word lit a fire in Harry's head, and he knew exactly whom McGonagall was talking about. A huge grin split his face as he thought about Sirius—even though they'd had the walk between the Quidditch pitch and the castle to talk, there was still so much he wanted to discuss with his godfather. Not only did he want to know exactly what had happened when he'd been in Voldemort's hands (and not the evasive and vague answers Sirius had given him before), but he also couldn't wait to introduce Sirius to Ron and Hermione. He was certain that his godfather would like them, and he'd told Sirius so much about his friends—
They had reached the entrance to Dumbledore's office, and Harry was startled out of his reverie. McGonagall's voice was level, perhaps even prim, but it was all Harry could do to stop himself from snickering out loud. There were times when the deputy headmistress barely seemed able to stomach Dumbledore's eccentricities, and this was certainly one of them. The expression on McGonagall's face did not waver, though, as she shot a glance over her shoulder and beckoned the trio forward.
"Scabbers" squeaked as the gargoyle jumped aside to reveal the hidden spiral staircase. Though he'd previously been still, the rat began to struggle in Ron's hands, biting and clawing with terror. Even McGonagall paused, glancing back at Ron and his struggling pet with a frown on her face. But she did not comment when Ron snarled a curse under his breath, sympathizing, perhaps, with his bleeding fingers and knuckles.
"Is he—?" Hermione began hesitantly. Ron growled.
"I think he's beginning to catch on, Professor."
"Indeed." McGonagall's eyes narrowed. "Fortunately for us, though, Mr. Pettigrew has come to that realization a little bit late."
Her use of the traitor's name silenced the rat immediately—or perhaps it was the cold stare she bestowed upon the struggling creature. For a long moment, it seemed as if "Scabbers'" eyes widened in terror, and the rat squeaked only once more, plaintively this time. But there was no more pity on McGonagall's cold face than what Harry felt for the "rat." There was only the absolute certainty that this would end—now, and forevermore. The lies would stop, and finally, perhaps, Harry could have a family.
"Don't even bother," Ron finally said, looking down and breaking the silence as Pettigrew started to struggle once more. Harry's best friend squeezed the rat tightly and smiled grimly. "You're not going anywhere."
The three students, one professor, and one misfortunate rat stepped into the staircase, which began to spiral upwards almost immediately. When they reached the gleaming oak door, McGonagall raised the griffin shaped knocker and rapped it sharply against the wood once. Pettigrew squealed loudly, but the door opened, revealing a sight that made the rat fall completely silent.
Ron followed Harry into Professor Dumbledore's office, a place that he'd only been once before. That visit, though, had been very different from the present one. At the very beginning of the school year, he and Hermione had been called to the headmaster's office so that Dumbledore could personally inform them that no one knew where Harry was or when he was coming back—or even if he would be coming back to Hogwarts. Now, though, he came through the door on Harry's heels, with a squirming and squealing rat in his hands—and then Scabbers suddenly fell silent.
Ron looked up as his pet—Pettigrew! he mentally swore—froze in terror. For a moment, he could not quite understand why, but then Harry stepped aside and Ron was able to see who else was in the room. Dumbledore, of course, was sitting behind his desk, but there were two others present. Professor Lupin caught Ron's eye first, but he hardly had time to wonder what their Defense professor was doing there before he noticed the other wizard.
The fact that his was the same face that had graced the front page of the Daily Prophet for weeks wasn't what caught Ron's attention. Rather, it was the intensely haunted blue eyes that immediately focused on Scabbers that sent a chill down the teen's spine. Sirius Black's hair was shorter than it appeared in the Prophet's pictures, but he was every bit as scrawny and bony and terrifying as the escaped convict had seemed in the paper. The robes he was wearing seemed oddly out of place with the gaunt features and haunted eyes, though, because they seemed relatively new and clean. Then again, Ron supposed that Black had been at Hogwarts for a while, so it figured that someone would have solved that problem for him.
Abruptly, Black tore his eyes away from the rat and looked at Ron's best friend. "Hello, Harry."
"Hi, Sirius." Ron shot a sidelong glance at his friend, and noticed the blazing grin on Harry's face. Suddenly, though, Harry gestured at Ron and Hermione. "These are my two best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger."
"Hello," Hermione said hesitantly as Ron blinked in surprise. Even though he knew that Black was innocent, this was still so weird—but he wasn't about to be outdone by Hermione, of all people. Not in this lifetime.
"Eh…Hi. Nice to meet you."
Pettigrew came out of his stupor with a start, and began struggling even as Ron said the words. Snarling under his breath, Ron hardly heard Black's response, but he knew that Harry's godfather had returned their greetings with almost as much surprise as the two teens had offered them. Sharp claws dug into Ron's fingers, but he hung on doggedly, glad that his mother wasn't around to hear the curses he was mumbling under his breath. Of course, McGonagall's disapproving eyes burning into his back were hardly better, but at least the old Transfiguration professor wasn't about to send him a Howler for breakfast.
"Perhaps we ought to save pleasantries for later," Professor Lupin suddenly put in, making Ron abruptly realize that his eyes, too, were on the struggling rat.
"Yes." Black's voice changed. It was now hard and gravelly—deadly. It sent a shiver down Ron's spine, and he was grateful that those burning blue eyes were not fastened on him.
Pettigrew squealed under that hard gaze, and nearly slipped free of Ron's hands—but he bit back the feelings that he wanted to express when Dumbledore looked at Harry and spoke.
"I understand that you have explained the situation to Ms. Granger and Mr. Weasley?" the headmaster asked quietly.
Of course, Harry didn't add that both Ron and Hermione still had dozens of unanswered questions, but Ron understood that this wasn't the time. Later, there would be plenty of chances to find out everything—but they had to get this done first. Whatever else he might have been, Ron wasn't blind. He could see how important proving Black's innocence was to Harry. His friend's voice fairly bubbled with excitement, and his eyes were glowing. Few people ever realized how lonely Harry was, but Ron had always known. From the very first, even when he'd just learned that his companion was the famous Harry Potter, Ron had always seen the desperate need for the family that his friend had never had. And he deserves it, Ron thought to himself, watching as Harry abruptly caught Black's gaze. The change was astonishing. The escaped prisoner's gaunt face creased immediately into a smile, making him look vaguely human for the first time.
Surprisingly, though, it was Lupin who stepped forward.
"May I see the rat, Ron?" the Defense professor asked courteously. The teen blinked. He'd expected McGonagall or Dumbledore to ask, or even Black—but what did Lupin have to do with all this? Come to think of it, what was he doing there at all?
Hermione's elbow dug into his side as she hissed his name and Ron shook free of his confusion. Carefully, he handed "Scabbers" over.
Lupin handled the rat with surprising ease, avoiding the flying claws and snapping teeth with practiced casualness. His brown eyes were glinting, though, as he grasped the supposed Animagus by the scruff of the neck, and hinted at emotional undercurrents that the professor wasn't showing. Suddenly, Ron got the impression that Black wasn't the only person in the office with a grudge against Pettigrew. Lupin's next words confirmed that.
"Shall we do this together, Sirius?" Lupin asked tightly.
"Yes," the other replied quietly. "I think it would be fitting."
Together, they lifted their wands, and Ron stopped to consider what might happen if Scabbers wasn't really Pettigrew—but he found, unsurprisingly, that he didn't much care. He believed Harry, and that was enough. Suddenly, Black and Lupin spoke, casting the spell simultaneously, even though hardly a word had passed between them. A brilliant light flared, momentarily threatening to blind them all, but when Ron blinked to clear his vision, Scabbers was gone. A short and balding man stood in his place, hunched over and shaking. Behind him, he heard McGonagall's muffled exclamation, and even Dumbledore's eyes widened ever so slightly. To his right, Hermione gasped quietly, and Harry was shifting impatiently from foot to foot. Only Black and Lupin seemed unsurprised.
"Hello Peter," Lupin said after a tense moment of silence. "It's been a long time."
"R-Remus… S-Sirius…" the small man stuttered, his eyes shifting nervously between the pair. "My…my old—"
"Don't even say it," Black cut him off harshly.
"I don't…I don't—"
"Understand?" Lupin finished pleasantly. But then his voice turned to iron. "That makes two of us."
Pettigrew's eyes flew wildly around the room. "You don't—you don't believe him, do you, Remus?" He finally seemed to find his voice. "He's—Sirius is crazy, Remus. He's here to kill me!"
"If I wanted to kill you, I would have done so already," Black grated. His voice seemed to come from beyond the grave.
"No one is going to harm you, Mr. Pettigrew," Dumbledore said quietly, speaking for the first time. "What we seek is the truth."
"Truth?" Pettigrew squeaked.. "He's here to kill me! You have to believe me. Please…" He cast another desperate glance around the room but encountered only stony faces. "He's lied to Remus like he lied to James and Lily—"
"How dare you." Black stepped forward, radiating power and anger and death. "How dare you even speak their names? James and Lily trusted you. They trusted you with their lives, and you betrayed them!"
"Me? But I couldn't, I wouldn't…" Suddenly, Pettigrew flung himself at Lupin, clutching madly at the Defense professor's robes. "You have to protect me! He wants everyone to think that it was me, but he spent twelve years waiting to kill me and now he's lied to you—Remus, you have to protect me! Please, Moony, don't let—"
"Don't ever call me that." Lupin's voice was ice, and he tore away from Pettigrew with disgust. "Traitor."
The small wizard winched pitifully. "But I didn't…"
"Didn't what?" Black sneered, moving to Lupin's side. He was shaking now, but Ron couldn't tell if it was from anger or emotion. "Didn't think? Didn't care?"
"Please… Someone has to believe me…." Again, Pettigrew glanced around, looking for support. His voice was broken, pleading. "Professor McGonagall…?" He swallowed. "You know I wouldn't…"
"No." Her voice was hard, and Pettigrew flinched as if struck.
"No. You will find no pity here, Peter. We know the truth."
The fight seemed to go out of Pettigrew, and he didn't try to protest McGonagall's pronunciation of his guilt. His face crumbled, and he turned to the others one by one, searching for hope that he seemed to know he would not find. Unyielding expressions met his pleading eyes, though, and when Dumbledore shook his head, Ron knew it was over. Pettigrew shuddered, then unexpectedly whirled around, stepping towards Harry and stretching his hands out beseechingly. "Harry, please. Don't let them kill me… You're James' son. He would understand."
"You betrayed my parents," Harry said coldly. "If I didn't want you alive to prove Sirius' innocence, I'd kill you myself." Something about Harry's stiff posture and hard face told everyone in the room that he wasn't lying—and Pettigrew seemed to realize that, too. Frenzied, he spun back to face Lupin and Black, wailing:
"But I was your friend!"
"You were more than that." Lupin's voice broke. "You were our brother."
"Then please… I didn't have a choice… You-Know-Who would have killed me!"
"Then you should have died," Black snarled. "Died rather than betray your friends, as we would have done for you!"
"But I've never been strong—"
"You were strong enough to lie to us," Lupin snapped, showing anger for the first time. "Strong enough to break our friendship. Don't lie to us, traitor. You joined Voldemort a year before James and Lily died."
"But no one can resist him," Pettigrew whined. Ron knew the expression he wore, though he'd never seen a grown wizard with it before. Pettigrew was searching for pity, now, not hope or forgiveness—he was hoping that Black or Lupin would falter in their anger and feel sorry for someone who had obviously once been their friend.
"Sirius did." Lupin's voice became very quiet, and Ron felt his own eyes widen as he listened to the part that Harry had left out and realized the other reasons why Black's eyes were so shadowed. "Resisted even when no one believed him, when everyone blamed him for what you did. So don't tell me that it's impossible, Peter. I know you too well. We know you were once much stronger than that.
"But I want to know why." His tone could have frozen molten lava. "Tell me why you had to break the best thing we ever knew."
The short man flinched again, more in reaction to the icy fury than to the pain that was so obvious on Lupin's face. Suddenly, though, Black stepped forward and laid a hand on Lupin's shoulder.
"I don't care why he did it." Pain also marred his gaunt features, but his voice was harsh. "I want to know if it was worth it."
Pettigrew opened his mouth, but no sound emerged. Black advanced upon him, then, stopping only when he was an arm's reach away and staring down at the shaking wizard.
"Was it worth it?"
There was no answer.
"And what did you hope to gain, Wormtail? What could you hope to gain that would possibly match everything you've already lost?"
Finally, tears began to streak down Pettigrew's cheeks, but Black did not react. His voice softened slightly, but grew no less cold as he continued:
"We loved you, Peter. We would have died for you. But you threw that all away. You threw everything away."
By dawn, a squad of Aurors had come to escort Azkaban's newest prisoner off of the Hogwarts grounds—Dementors would have been sent, but Dumbledore had refused to let them anywhere near the school, much to Sirius' relief. But Pettigrew was gone, now, and it was over. Over. Though Sirius' trial was scheduled in two weeks time, everyone knew that it was a mere formality. The support of Albus Dumbledore, Arthur Weasley, and Alastor Moody more or less sealed his case; as little as Cornelius Fudge wanted Sirius Black to be innocent, the proof was irrefutable. Pettigrew would testify under Veritaserum, and it would be done.
He felt like a giant weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Twelve years of hell and self-reproach could not vanish in a few moments time, but for once, he felt hope. Sirius no longer felt that he had no future. Darkness no longer beckoned from the path ahead, and although he hadn't slept all night (he'd been awake for over forty-eight hours, when all was told), Sirius felt better than he had in years.
"You're going to be free, you know," a quiet voice said from beside him, and Sirius grinned. Really grinned, now, not just an effort at remembering a talent he'd lost. He was officially in the "custody" of Albus Dumbledore, but everyone involved knew that really meant that he couldn't leave the Hogwarts grounds. Of course, with Harry at Hogwarts, there really wasn't anywhere else Sirius would rather be.
They were sitting outside together, watching the sun come up. Neither had slept, but neither really cared. They hadn't talked too much, either; mostly, Remus had told Sirius the story of his last twelve years, and Sirius had in turn told him of Harry and the short time they'd spent together. Most importantly, though, they had talked. Although twelve years of bitterness and blame still separated them, the gap was smaller now. Much smaller.
"Is it hard to believe?" Remus asked gently.
"Yeah." Sirius took a deep breath. "Sometimes I tried to dream of being free…but it never lasted. The only fantasy that I could ever make stick was revenge. I never really thought that I might be able to live again…"
Remus' hand landed on his shoulder and squeezed gently. "And now you can. Have you talked to Dumbledore about Harry yet?"
"Yeah. He's not very happy about it, but we've come to an agreement." Sirius smiled slightly, feeling the sudden urge to snicker—something he hadn't done since he and Harry had been together at Grimmauld Place.
"Oh, really?" his friend asked mildly.
This time, Sirius did chuckle. "Actually, I've been meaning to ask you about that."
"Something tells me that this ought to be good," Remus responded dryly
"It's not that bad," he objected, trying to sound offended and failing miserably. He was too happy to be even feign being offended—but still, he heard Remus hesitate and knew that a strain of formality remained in their relationship. They weren't yet all they had been…but time could change that.
"Coming from you, I find that difficult to believe," Remus finally responded, having overcome his uncertainty.
Now, however, Sirius had to deal with uncertainty of his own. He'd felt so certain of this solution earlier, when Dumbledore had presented it, but now…now he was almost afraid. Afraid to hope that everything might be okay, that he and Remus might become the close friends that they had once been. He forced himself to take a deep breath before speaking, and struggled to keep his tone light.
"So, what do you plan on doing this summer?" Sirius asked. He resolutely kept his eyes focused on the horizon and away from his friend, but he heard the frown in Remus' voice at the abrupt change in subject.
"Probably go back to my cottage," his friend replied slowly. "Get by how I can." The unspoken remainder of his answer floated in the air between them: At least I'll have a job to come back to next year. After a moment of awkward silence in which Sirius tried to figure out how to continue, Remus wondered, "Why do you ask?"
"Well…" he swallowed. "I was wondering, sort of…if maybe you'd like to spend the summer with me and Harry at Grimmauld Place. It'd be safer for Harry with us both around…"
He stole a glance at Remus, trying to discern his friend's reaction. Sirius knew that Remus was fiercely independent and absolutely hated the thought of accepting charity. Even though Remus had been poor for much of his life, and doubly handicapped by his condition, he had always been determined to fend for himself. Sometimes, the very strengths that made Remus able to be so self-reliant meant that he was too stubborn for his own good, though, and Sirius really hoped that Remus would not misinterpret his offer as mere charity. While his friend hesitated, undoubtedly trying to come up with a polite way to refuse, Sirius continued doggedly.
"And I'd really appreciate it if you could…if you would," he added quietly. Remus stared at him blankly, and Sirius found it difficult to meet that direct gaze. A small corner of his battered soul immediately tried to retreat, wanted to find that safe and secure place within his mind where he could hide, but Sirius wouldn't let it. He had to make Remus understand…had to get past the growing fear of being alone. He had to figure out how to phrase this so Remus could understand. "It's just that we have so much to catch up on and I think it'd be good for Harry…"
"And for you," Remus said quietly, suddenly. Their eyes met, and it was like looking in a mirror: both of them had known too much pain for far too long. Sirius saw his friend hesitate before admitting, "And probably for me, too."
"Will you, then?" He was almost afraid to ask.
Remus smiled. "Of course. Someone has to keep you out of trouble."
They laughed together. The riposte had been almost automatic—almost, if not really so. He wasn't really himself, not yet…but he was close. Maybe.
"Moony and Padfoot, together again," Remus mused. "Dumbledore doesn't know what he's getting into, does he?"
Sirius chuckled. "Nor does Harry."
"Oh, they'll find out."