Practice MaterialJames Potter stepped out of the front doors of the castle into a mild September evening. For a moment, he just stood there, taking in the scenery – the grounds, the lake, then the Forest and the hills in the distance. All so familiar, and yet it somehow looked different today.
It was Friday, and their first week back at school after the summer holidays was over – the first week of their final year at Hogwarts, as James was often aware these days. The school itself looked different, too. Hogwarts had been his second home for the past six years, but he sometimes felt that he was looking at it with different eyes now. Or maybe he had just never looked properly before? And maybe it was true that nothing made you love and value something more than the threat of losing it. And it wouldn't be long now. Just a year.
"Excuse us." A rather sharp voice interrupted his thoughts, and he whirled around and came face to face with an annoyed looking Lily Evans. He looked back at her and the four other girls in her company with a rather puzzled expression on his face, wondering what he'd done this time to displease her, until he realised that he was simply blocking the doorway.
"Sorry," he muttered, and drew aside to let them pass. They trooped past him, Lily in front, and James realised that the others were all new fifth year prefects who had obviously decided to take the opportunity to have a little private chat with the Head Girl about, well, whatever girls had to talk about among themselves. Teaching them the most efficient methods how to reject unsolicited advances from male students, are you, Lily? he thought with a touch of bitterness as he followed them into the grounds at a careful distance.
Headboyship, so James had discovered even before his first week back at school was over, came with lots of responsibilities, but also with quite a few advantages. One of them was that he had just got to skip Potions to attend a meeting with Albus Dumbledore, the heads of the houses, and the new fifth year prefects. And of course, Lily.
It had turned out to be a rather boring affair. A lot of the talk had revolved around rules and regulations, but James had surprised himself by actually listening to most of it without his first thought being how to incorporate this newly acquired knowledge in some daring and outrageous prank. Time to spend more time with the Marauders again, James thought, still shaking his head at the model Head Boy who had sat quietly on his chair for over an hour, listened patiently to what the teachers had to say, had even taken a few notes, and made some sensible and intelligent remarks of his own about one or another technicality of the day-to-day running of the school. Too bad only that Lily Evans had kept giving him these suspicious looks across the table, as if she didn't quite trust him to be sincere about accepting his new responsibilities, as if she sensed some cunning Marauder plotting in the works behind that friendly mask. Well, she'd been wrong. Or had she? James wished he knew it himself.
The girls had taken the steep path down towards the lake, Lily's hair shining dark copper in the evening sunlight, but James didn't follow them further. He wasn't going to let himself be accused of stalking them, and classes would be over in about five minutes anyway. So he might as well settle down on the grassy slope overlooking the lake to enjoy the sun, and wait for his friends there. For Sirius, to be precise. Peter and Remus had dropped Potions after fifth year, and were probably in the library making good use of their free period, working on some other assignment. Quite voluntarily.
It had been strange for all four Marauders to get back into the traditional school routine after the holidays, not only for James. But then, the past summer holidays had been quite different from the ones before, too.
Sirius, having turned seventeen in April, had finally come into the inheritance his Uncle Alphard had left him, and had spent the first week of the holidays scouting around Muggle London to find himself a place to live. None of his friends had been with him then – their families were demanding their attention, and this was his project, and his alone. But after a week, he had turned up again at the Potters' place to collect his few belongings, and owled Remus and Peter to come down to London as well, and his three friends had eagerly joined him in exploring what it felt like to be truly in charge of your own life. Making himself at home in his small new flat was enough to keep Sirius busy for weeks, and his new-found inclination towards purposeful activities, rather than just stylishly wasting time as he had always done over the previous school holidays, had proved positively contagious.
Peter, who was a family person through and through and often felt cut off from home during the school term, tried to divide his time equally between his friends and his much younger sisters and cousins at home. Whenever James came there to pick him up, he would find Peter teaching the little ones to play Gobstones, or giving advice when they were experimenting with their potion kits, and generously repairing their toys with a casual flick of his wand whenever the need arose. It had taken James a while to get used to that sight, but he definitely liked what he saw. Peter had been the last of the Marauders to turn seventeen, and more than all the others he seemed to have taken on a new persona with it. They all agreed it was very good news, and James wouldn't for the world have wanted to keep Peter from playing the wise, responsible big brother for his younger siblings - even if it meant the other Marauders saw less of him over the holidays than they'd expected to.
James himself wasn't much of a help as far as the technical aspect of installing Sirius in his new home was concerned. The spoiled child that he was (Remus's words), he was useless with household things, especially when it came to doing them the Muggle way, and the doors, windows and kitchen and bathroom appliances of Sirius's Muggle flat were very slow to learn how to respond to magic. And as far as that shed in the backyard and the old Muggle motor bike that seemed to have been abandoned there by some previous lodger were concerned – Sirius might be completely fascinated with it, but what was James supposed to find so interesting about a vehicle that couldn't go faster than 80 mph, and even that only on the ground? So although he still spent more time at Sirius's than Peter, he didn't nearly spend as much time there as Remus did.
Well, James certainly didn't mind that, either. Anything that would help those two to get their friendship back on track after the last year was welcome. Their sixth year at school hadn't been an exactly easy one for any of the Marauders, but naturally, the aftermath of the incident they now referred to as "The Prank", to spare themselves and each other names and details, had been far worse for Remus and Sirius than for the others. And that wasn't even counting the turmoil that had led to it in the first place.
More than once last school year, James had caught himself looking at either of his friends with a sudden nagging fear and doubt whether things between them would really ever be the same again as before. But once the holidays had arrived, the two of them seemed to have fallen back into their usual easy familiarity. Well – maybe, James had realised quite soon, maybe it wasn't quite the same familiarity as before. They seemed closer and more distant at the same time, if that made sense. They could be totally inane at one moment and then rather serious at the next, and slipped back and forth between both extremes in a silent understanding that was new to James, and probably new to them, too. James doubted they'd even noticed.
They were growing up.
The thought had struck James out of the blue on one of those warm days as he sat on the rickety kitchen table at Sirius's place with a bottle of butterbeer in his hand, watching his two friends struggle with the wallpaper they had bought for the two main rooms of the flat. They had laid out long sheets of it on the floor, and as none of them had quite mastered the hellishly complex Permanent Sticking charm yet – though not from lack of trying - they were putting the wallpaper up Muggle style. James had been banned from the living room on the grounds of behaving in an utterly counter-productive way (Remus's words, again), and had to content himself with watching from the kitchen how they were doing. And what he saw surprised him, more even than the sight of Peter patiently tutoring a bunch of little children at Gobstones.
Only a year ago, even without James's participation, the decorating project would inevitably have resulted in complete and utter chaos - a wall messily plastered not only with wallpaper, but probably also with pages of the Daily Prophet and every other bit of paper and parchment that had fallen into their hands, and lots of glue all over the place, on the floor and on their robes and on their hands and faces and generally everywhere it wasn't supposed to go. Not this time. They were taking this project seriously. They were taking themselves seriously. And this, James realised, was neither the first nor the only occasion when they did. They would cook, too, or at least try. Hell, Sirius and Remus even went for walks now. Long Muggle Sunday afternoon walks.
Growing up was a strange thing, James concluded, and more disquieting than watching it happen to his friends were the little signs of it he'd discovered on himself. So in the end, when in the fourth week of the holidays a large school owl had arrived at his house and he had pulled a Hogwarts letter and the Head Boy badge from the envelope, for some reason James's first thought had been that he'd somehow, for want of a better word, had it coming to him.
The only real surprise in Dumbledore's letter had been the P.S. Surprising because it hadn't deserved to be a mere P.S. It had read, "The new Head Girl is Lily Evans."
James's eyes went back to the group of the girls down by the lake. They were gathered in a circle on the grassy bank. One of the new prefects pointed at something across the surface of the water, and Lily threw her head back and laughed.
"Day-dreaming about a red-haired princess?" asked a familiar voice behind James, and he turned around lazily just as Sirius dropped his schoolbag on the ground and slumped down next to him. "You've got to work on your reflexes, Prongs," he said disapprovingly. "Or on your hearing. If I'd been going to hex you, you wouldn't have stood a chance."
"Were you going to hex me?"
"No," Sirius admitted. "How was the meeting?"
"Boring. How was Potions?"
"Fun. I'm in detention."
James's eyebrows rose into his messy hair. "It's the first week of the school year and you're already in detention?"
Sirius scowled at him. "I'm in detention and you're surprised?" he aped James's scandalised tone. "What's wrong with you, Prongs? Only a year ago it would have been 'And what took you till Friday?'"
"Excuse me, what would it look like if the Head Boy – "
"Oh, thanks for reminding me," Sirius interrupted him sarcastically. "I'd keep overlooking that shiny new badge of yours if you didn't remind us about ten times a day that it's there."
James snorted, but didn't reply. Although his three friends had taken the news of his appointment with reasonably straight faces, they still seemed convinced that there was something highly comical about it, and James was having a hard time not letting it show too much that he was in fact rather proud of it. Yes, maybe they were right, and Head Boys were prats who spent all day and half the night in the library and only came out to dock points from their own houses and to deal out detentions just because they could. Maybe they were all little teacher's pets that parted their hair in the middle and tucked their shirts in and never got to date a real – um, anyway, maybe that was how all the others had been. But he was James Potter, and let them laugh at the idea of James Potter wearing the Head Boy badge, he was going to be good at this, just like he was at everything else. But he had to admit that this particular achievement was the stuff the most exquisite teasing was made of. It had only been a week, and James already regretted ever having made fun of Remus's prefect appointment back in their fifth year.
"So, what did you do to land yourself in detention?" he asked Sirius, who shrugged.
"Dropped a firework into Snape's cauldron."
"God, no," James sighed. "You moron, Padfoot. That's so unoriginal it deserves a week of bedpan cleaning."
Sirius brushed his overlong hair out of his eyes. "It's not unoriginal, it's a classic," he declared.
"Yeah, but 'classic' sounds so much better, doesn't it?"
"You've been dropping fireworks into Snape's cauldron ever since second year. It's just way below standard by now."
"That's what Professor Appleby told me, too."
"Professor Appleby said that dropping a firework into Snape's cauldron was below standard?"
"Yes. Well, no. She went off on her usual sermon, you know, responsibility maturity bla bla bla, but she did say expressly that she 'expected better from her NEWT students'. Upon which I promised that next time I disrupted her classes it would certainly be with something that came up to NEWT standards in intricacy. There was no time to come up with anything more elaborate," Sirius defended himself dramatically when he saw his friend frown. "Try and understand the extent of my despair, Prongs. There I was, in complete withdrawal after eight entirely prank-free weeks, and there was old Snivellus with his cauldron right in front of him, and you, with your infallible inspiration, weren't there to help me come up with anything better. The only thing I could find in my bag was this old firework. It was automatic. The circumstances were compelling. You can't hold me responsible for my actions."
"But Professor Appleby did."
"Of course. Gentle old soul. She said she felt very silly giving a seventh year detention, but before I could assure her that she didn't have to take the trouble if it made her uncomfortable, she said she had just heard Professor Trotter complain that he was positively buried under coursework to mark from his third and fourth year Defense classes, and if I was so keen on academic achievements I could help him with that tonight."
At that, James laughed out loud. "Merlin, Snape must have loved that!"
"He did," Sirius confirmed cheerfully. "He gave me a look that would have curdled his potion, if there'd been any of it left in his cauldron. It was beautiful. Bless Appleby. I'm going to love every minute of it tonight, just to annoy that git." He punched his fist into the air, grinning. "It's so much fun when your enemies envy you even your punishments."
For a moment, James found it hard to believe that this boy, who displayed such childish glee at having exploded a potion in his favourite enemy's face and got away with it, should be the same person who had a house and a motorbike to look after now, who had consulted his friends which wallpaper to choose for his living room (it had turned out a shocking purple in the end, but still), and who had announced very gravely that he intended to learn how to cook proper five course dinners (his fried eggs were still runny, but it was the intention that counted). Well, maybe even growing up was just another fun pastime for Sirius Black. Just one of the countless things that would suddenly attract his curiosity, serve to provide a bit of excitement for a while, and then be flung aside while he bounded off in pursuit of some new project.
"What's up, Prongs?" Sirius interrupted his thoughts, still grinning at the idea of Snape envying him his detention, and elbowed him in the ribs. "Mr Padfoot would like to point out that Mr Prongs, in his new-found Head Boy dignity, is becoming an exceedingly dull person to be around. You're not yourself."
"Thanks," said James dryly, not rising to the bait. "I'm not the only one, you know."
"Not the only exceedingly dull person around?" Sirius asked with a yawn. "No, of course not. There's always Professor Binns, for one. And all those little suck-ups at your meeting today, I suppose."
"Hey," James said rather sharply. "Our best friend was just such a suck-up not so long ago, remember? And some of them are OK, really."
"Remus wasn't a suck-up," Sirius muttered, his tone suddenly rather defensive.
"But I am?"
"Did I say that?"
There was an unpleasant silence for a moment, and the two friends turned away from each other to watch the group of girls, who were coming back up the winding path from the lake now. They were still chattering merrily among themselves, and none of them paid much attention to the two boys sitting on the grass close by. They were almost past them when Lily turned and called over her shoulder, "You're going to be late for dinner, Potter!" and then walked on without waiting for a reply.
"You're doing it for her, aren't you?" Sirius said when they were out of earshot, nodding after the girls.
"What?" James asked irritably. "What am I doing for her?"
"All this – "Sirius waved his hand dismissively. "All this serious, responsible, grown-up stuff."
"You know I'm not," said James in an injured tone. "She hates me. She doesn't trust me at all. All she thinks is that this serious, responsible, grown-up stuff is just some cunning act of mine to fool everyone into lowering their guard. Like I'm using the Head Boy thing as a cover to plot blowing up the school or something."
"Aren't you?" Sirius asked, sounding very disappointed.
James gave his friend a dirty look, not deigning to reply to the question. "If you asked her, the only point of this whole Head Boy idea was to annoy her."
"I wouldn't put that past Dumbledore," said Sirius dryly, then struck by a sudden thought added, "Do you think it was?"
"What, that he made me Head Boy only to annoy her?"
"Or made you Head Boy so she'd realise there's more to you than what she's seen so far," Sirius suggested wisely.
"So I can fall short of her expectations yet again? I get the impression she's only waiting to frame me for something, so she can go running to Dumbledore and complain about me."
"But it happens, you know," Sirius insisted. "Sometimes you think you know all there is to know about a person, and then when you're put together in a new way, with different things to do, you suddenly realise there's a whole lot of things about him you've never seen before."
"Sirius, Dumbledore doesn't appoint someone Head Boy and Girl just so people who don't get along can become friends," James said, shaking his head.
Sirius picked a few blades of grass from the lawn and flung them aside. "No, I suppose not," he said after a moment, and another grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. "If that's what he wanted, he'd have made Snivellus Head Girl, not Evans."
James laughed again. "Lovely," he declared. "I suppose I'd better be glad then it's Evans, after all." He shifted and stretched out his long legs. "Padfoot, promise me one thing," he said with a sigh and lay back, pillowing his head on Sirius's bag, looking up at the clouds in the sky above. "Never fall in love with someone who will never love you back."
There was a silence.
"What – what makes you say that?" Sirius asked then. He had started picking at the grass again, avoiding his friend's eyes when James turned towards him.
"Experience," James shrugged. "I wouldn't recommend it. Trust me, it makes you feel very stupid. Why?"
"Nothing," Sirius muttered. "It's no use trying to understand them, is it?" he asked then, nodding after the girls again. "I mean, what exactly is it that makes you fall in love with a bloke?"
"That's obvious," James said in an off-hand tone. "I mean, it doesn't seem to work with some of them, but it's actually self-explanatory, don't you think?" He made a sweeping gesture with one of his arms. "I mean, we're clever and smashingly good looking and brilliant at Quidditch and any Slytherin that comes within ten feet of us is a goner... wouldn't you instantly fall in love with someone like that?"
"Could you?" Sirius asked sceptically.
James sat up again, scowling at his friend. "I get the message, thanks," he said sarcastically.
"I wonder if you do," Sirius muttered in an undertone, but James caught it nonetheless.
"What exactly is that supposed to mean?"
"I asked you if you could fall in love with a bloke," Sirius repeated, almost defiantly now.
James stared at his friend, hazel eyes meeting unfathomable grey. Then all of a sudden, something in his brain seemed to click, as if someone had tipped over the first piece in a row of dominoes, and one piece was taking down the next now, one after another falling into place. If you looked at it that way, the whole summer suddenly made so much sense. His face broke into a wide grin. "Can I tell Remus you asked that?" he blurted out.
"No, you can't!" Sirius said much too quickly.
"Why not? I think he ought to know." James was already half on his feet.
"He ought not," Sirius hissed and pulled his friend back down by his arm. "Idiot."
"You're not serious about this, are you?"
"Answer my question."
"Can I tell Remus then?"
Sirius made a noise almost like a growl, and James raised his hands in a gesture of defeat. "All right, all right! So – erm, could I fall in love with a bloke?"
"Hmm." James frowned, squatting on his heels, doing his friend the favour of taking the question seriously for a moment. "I don't know," he said then. "I suppose so. I mean, I guess it's the person you fall in love with, and whether it's a girl or a bloke doesn't make a difference. Well it does, technically. But the feelings would probably be the same." He shook his head. "God, Padfoot, you're being stupid. Please don't tell me you've discovered some crazy new – "
"Crazy new what?" Sirius interrupted him sharply.
"There isn't a specific reason we're talking about this, is there?" James asked ironically, but Sirius stubbornly shook his head.
"Are you going to tell him?" James insisted, but Sirius shook his head again.
"Shame. Because if you won't, I will. And the only way to stop me will be to tell him first." He was back on his feet in an instant, and before Sirius could hold him back or even knew what was happening, James had gone sprinting up the grassy slope back towards the castle.
Sirius swore, scrambled to his feet and went after him as fast as he could, but even on the ground, James did honour to being the fastest Chaser the Gryffindor Quidditch team had seen in a generation. He was half way up the steps to the front doors, three at a time, before Sirius had even reached the bottom.
"Come back, you stupid prat!" he shouted after James, wasting his breath. "I'm going to kill you if you tell him!"
James lost a few seconds of precious time wrenching open the heavy front doors, which gave Sirius the chance to almost catch up with him. But James was still the first into the entrance hall, and the first to realise that they were indeed late for dinner, and the meal had already begun.
The doors to the Great Hall burst open, and James came hurtling in, Head Boy dignity forgotten, Sirius hard on his heels, determined to stop him at all cost. James tore down the row between the Gryffindor and Ravenclaw tables and skidded to a halt where Remus and Peter were sitting, grabbing Peter by the shoulders to steady himself. Peter, taken by surprise, was knocked into his neighbour, a fourth year girl. She gave a little scream and dropped the heavy jug she'd been filling her goblet from. A cascade of pumpkin juice sloshed all over the table, and most of it straight into the lap of the girl opposite.
"Honestly!" Lily Evans shouted, jumping to her feet, the front of her robes completely soaked.
"Remus, would you believe – "James panted, but broke off, very much distracted by the sight of wet robes clinging to the figure of a very angry Lily Evans, sharply outlining the body underneath. And before he could tear his gaze away, Sirius had crashed into him sideways, grabbed him around the neck and clapped his hand over his mouth.
Gales of laughter and quite a handful of wolf whistles erupted from all the house tables, and Lily Evans's face went a red that clashed horribly with her hair.
Albus Dumbledore was watching the scene from the staff table with a rather amused expression on his face. Minerva McGonagall, however, had risen from her chair and was rapping her knuckles sharply on the table in front of her. "Can my house please return to order, and immediately!" she demanded in a crisp tone, and the hall fell silent. "Mr Potter, you will kindly either report your good news in a civilised and quiet manner, or wait with it till after dinner. Mr Black, much as I appreciate your support, I'd ask you not to enforce this in a way that brings Mr Potter into danger of suffocation. Thank you."
James rolled wide eyes at Sirius, gesticulating wildly to indicate that Professor McGonagall wasn't exaggerating, and Sirius let go of him. They looked at each other rather sheepishly for a moment.
"Really, Potter!" hissed Lily from the other side of the table, clutching her soaked robes around her with both hands. "What a humongously clumsy oaf you are!" She whirled around and marched down the row and out of the hall to change. James gazed after her, an almost pained look on his face. Then he shook his head and turned back to his friends.
Remus was still sitting in his place, his arms folded on the table, completely unshaken by the turmoil around him, wearing an expression of nothing beyond mild curiosity. He raised a questioning eyebrow at his friends. "Would I believe what?" he asked politely.
"Nothing," James and Sirius said with one voice.
- - - -
James's mishap seemed to have dampened his spirits considerably. His eyes went more than once to the seat Lily had vacated, and the frown never quite disappeared from his face during the entire meal. Sirius was equally quiet, but still on the alert. He kept shooting James furtive sideways glances, not quite trusting him to keep his mouth shut even now. His hand wasn't exactly on his wand, but he had his foot strategically positioned under the table to kick James hard in the shins in case he attempted to say anything Remus shouldn't hear. Thankfully, nothing of the sort occurred. Peter and Remus did most of the talking, exchanging trivialities, the scene at the start of dinner apparently forgotten.
When Dumbledore rose, signalling the official ending of the meal, James was the first of their group on his feet. "Anyone want my pudding?" he asked, pushing his untouched apple crumble towards the centre of the table. "No time," he explained when this was met with looks of surprise. "Quidditch practice. See you later."
"Prongs is worried about getting too heavy for his broom," Remus grinned.
Peter made an indignant noise – references to weight never went down well with him – and climbed out, awkwardly as ever, from between the bench and the table. "I'm off, too. Gobstones Club. First meeting this year. Committee elections and everything," he announced importantly. "Gotta dash."
Remus only shrugged, pulled James's pudding towards him and began to attack it with an appetite that was so healthy it was good to see. It was amazing how much food his slender frame could accommodate at any one mealtime. Shame, Sirius thought, that it was never given the time to have a more lasting effect, before the next full moon took it all away again in one single night.
"So," Remus said after a moment, licking his lips. "What exactly was the good news James was so eager to report?"
"Um – nothing. Really." Sirius shifted in his seat. He wasn't even sure why he was still sitting there. He had, after all, just as valid an excuse to make himself scarce as the other two had had. If anything awkward was to come of this, they were going to pay for leaving him behind like that. James was going to pay at any rate.
Remus seemed in no hurry to finish his meal. He merely smiled at Sirius over his spoon. "For nothing," he said pointedly, "it seemed to matter quite a lot to you that he didn't get the chance to say it."
"Yeah, exactly. I just didn't want him to babble even more inane nonsense than usual," Sirius said quickly.
Remus cocked his eyebrow again. He did it with an amazing ease, as if to mock the fact that Sirius had been secretly practising the very same thing in front of the bathroom mirror for weeks on end last year, and still failed to manage it. "You're such a bad liar, Padfoot," he said in an amused tone.
"Yeah, I suppose so." Sirius rose from his seat. "Look, I know it's not polite, but I've got to go, too, or I'll be late for that detention. I'll see you later."
"I do get the impression that you're not only a liar, but also a coward." Remus was probing around in his crumble with his spoon, just like he was probing into Sirius's mind now, and he almost smirked at the fact that nothing of what he was saying provoked Sirius into the heated retort that one would have had to expect under usual circumstances. This time, there wasn't even a half-hearted denial, and Remus seemed very much aware that he had more than touched a nerve there – he had struck gold.
Sirius snorted, turned on his heel before Remus could see him go red, and strode down the hall towards the doors, Professor Trotter's office, and his detention.
- - - -
It turned out not very academically challenging after all. Professor Trotter, never a great talker, just placed a stack of parchments in front of Sirius, pushed an inkwell with red ink towards him, and grunted, "I hope you find this sufficiently tedious and boring for a detention. It always feels just like that to me."
They were quizzes to check on the class's progress in their summer reading – "Outline the habitat, physical appearance, hunting and feeding habits, Ministry classification and accepted method of extermination of the following creatures." Kappas, Redcaps, Grindylows, that sort of thing. Truly basic third year stuff, not interesting at all. Sirius had finished with his stack at ten to nine, working methodically and quietly, the copy of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Professor Trotter had provided in case he needed to check on the right answers unopened at his elbow.
Professor Trotter glanced at the clock, muttered, "Not bad. Thanks. Good night," and Sirius was dismissed.
Sitting on a windowsill in the corridor outside the Professor's office, dangling his legs and looking very content with himself and the world, Sirius found Remus Lupin waiting for him. Trust that one to never let go again, once he'd closed his jaws on his prey.
"Have you been sitting here since dinner?" Sirius greeted him.
"No," Remus replied cheerfully and slid down from his seat. "But Wormtail isn't back from the Gobstones Club yet, and I wasn't wanted in the common room, so I figured I'd see if I could pick up our penitent sinner from his detention."
"What do you mean, you're not wanted in the common room?" Sirius asked as they set off side by side down the corridor.
"Oh, it just looked like Prongs wouldn't take it kindly if he was disturbed. He's – engaged in a conversation."
"You mean having another shouting match with Evans?"
"When I left, they were actually talking quite sensibly. At least at a sensible volume."
"Why shouldn't they?"
"Well, considering he's just drenched her in pumpkin juice with the whole Great Hall looking on – "
"I think he's apologised."
"And she's accepted it?" Sirius rolled his eyes in mock indignation. "Honestly, what is the world coming to?"
"You never know," said Remus mysteriously. "Just because they used to shout doesn't mean they can't talk normally now. You know, sometimes people only ever look at each other in one way for ages, and then one day something makes them take a closer look and, snap, everything suddenly changes."
Sirius's head jerked around to his friend at these words. "Did James say that?" he asked, rather alarmed.
"No," Remus said slowly, and stopped in his tracks. "What makes you think that?"
"I – nothing. I dunno. Look, let's go back to the common room, shall we? It's probably after nine and I fancy Filch – "
And as if Sirius had called him forth from his lair on the floor below by speaking his name, there were suddenly footsteps on the stairs at the end of the corridor, and they could hear the caretaker's rasping voice, muttering to his cat. "Here, my sweet. Shan't we see – "
Remus was even quicker to react than Sirius. He grabbed his friend's arm and dragged him to the nearest door. It wasn't locked, and he wrenched it open, pushed both of them inside and closed it behind them, just as Filch turned around the corner.
"Good thinking," Sirius whispered appreciatively.
"Marauder instinct," Remus muttered back. "Colloportus."
They listened in silence to Filch's footsteps passing the door and walking on, huddled close together by the wall. Sirius could feel the smaller boy's warm breath against the side of his neck.
When Filch's steps were lost in the distance, they turned automatically to inspect the room they were in. It was dark and dusty, full of cabinets with glass doors and shelves and boxes that stored all sorts of clutter. Stuffed animals, kitchenware, gardening tools, old shoes, it looked like an attic or a lumber room that had accumulated disused household possessions over several generations. The pale moonlight that was filtering through the high window made the objects on the shelves cast bizarre shadows.
"Practice material," Remus breathed, and although his face was in the dark, Sirius could hear the grin in his voice. He let go of Sirius's arm, and Sirius became aware he'd still been holding it.
"Let's go," whispered Sirius urgently.
"Why?" came the unexpected answer out of the shadows. "I must say we were having quite an interesting conversation before Filch turned up, and I have a feeling it was far from finished. I'd really like you to explain that last thing you said before we were interrupted."
"I just said let's go back," Sirius hissed impatiently.
"No, you didn't," Remus chuckled. "You said you fancied Filch."
"I – God, you prat," Sirius snapped. "I just meant I fancy he'd love cornering us for prowling the school after curfew again. Detention on the way back from detention, that would be just his style." And without thinking, he added rather heatedly, "And what business of yours is it who I fancy, anyway?" He bit his lip as soon as the words were out, but there was no taking them back. He couldn't see it, but he was sure Remus had raised an eyebrow again. Or possibly both this time.
"Is that what James wanted to tell me at dinner?" Remus guessed, and Sirius hesitated just a moment too long before he shook his head. "Ah," said his friend's voice in the shadows. "I see. Well, you can tell me now. No need to fear the whole Great Hall overhearing us here."
"Moony, you're being stupid," Sirius whispered, trying to keep the true reason for his discomfort out of his voice. "Let's get out of here. What if McGonagall comes here to collect practice material for class or something?"
"I don't care, as long as she doesn't take mine."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You'll see. Answer my question first."
"There's nothing to tell."
"Oh, being difficult, are we?" Remus chuckled again. "But never fear, I'll find a way to get it out of you."
"There are ways," said Remus knowingly.
"Where would you get any of that?"
"The Imperius curse."
"That's illegal, Moony."
"That's ill – "
But before Sirius could get the word out, there was a sudden movement in the shadows by the door, and then Remus was literally on him. He had closed the space between them in a single step, and before Sirius knew what was happening, he felt his friend's hands on both sides of his face, and his friend's soft, warm lips pressing down on his own, for a moment, a glorious moment, cutting off his speech, his breath, and even the ability to think clearly. But it lasted only for that one moment before utter surprise and confusion made him break free from the embrace. He pushed Remus away, a little harder than necessary, and the smaller boy stumbled a step backwards and crashed into the shelf nearest the door. It swayed precariously, and out of the corner of his eye Sirius caught a stuffed owl far above them topple over and come tumbling down towards them. He instinctively grabbed Remus, who couldn't see the danger, by the front of his robes and yanked him aside. Remus overbalanced, and clinging to Sirius, or Sirius to him, they both came down on the dusty floor, Sirius flat on his back and Remus right on top of him. A fraction of a second later, the stuffed owl crashed down exactly where Remus had stood only a moment before.
They froze in their awkward pose, straining their ears to hear if the noise had attracted anyone's attention. But there were no footsteps approaching, no indication that Filch was returning, or that a teacher was out to investigate the cause of the racket they must have made.
The dust settled, and Remus released his breath in a low sigh. "Good thing she was already dead," he remarked with a glance at the remains of the owl. "Otherwise she would be now."
"Otherwise she'd have flown down, not fallen, idiot," Sirius muttered. He tried to sit up, but all this resulted in was pressing himself even closer against his friend, and he quickly stopped. "And I wouldn't have had to save your life."
"And I wouldn't be eternally bound to you now," Remus said with a grin, apparently not bothered in the slightest by the rather embarrassing position the accident had left them in. "You know, ancient magic at its deepest, and all that."
"Is that all it takes?" Sirius asked, and surprised himself by the note of panic in his voice. "A stuffed owl threatening to fall on your head?"
"Maybe," Remus said mysteriously. "Thanks anyway. Good thinking."
"Marauder instinct," Sirius muttered, for the first time ever wondering if there were situations in life in which following that particular instinct maybe wasn't the cleverest and safest way out of trouble after all. Then he remembered that it hadn't been him who had started the trouble this time. "You kissed me, Moony," he said rather accusingly.
"I was blackmailing you," Remus admitted freely, and propped his chin up on his forearm that lay across Sirius's chest, looking down at him with the air of a cat contemplating a mouse she was about to swallow whole. "Now, if you don't confess to me here and now what James wanted to tell me, it will be less than an hour before the entire female student body of this venerable institution knows that Sirius Black is a lousy kisser."
So, am I, Sirius had meant to reply in a tone as dry as the dust on the floor around them, but to his surprise it came out as a genuine question.
For a moment, Remus himself seemed thrown off course. "Are you what?" he repeated, raising his head in surprise.
"A – a lousy kisser."
"Hmm," Remus made, and seemed to do some hard thinking. "I must say I can't claim to have a broad enough basis in experience yet to come to a proper conclusion about the matter. You were in rather a hurry to push me away."
Was there a note of disappointment in his voice? He had said it casually enough, but still... Sirius felt an odd sensation beginning to form in the pit of his stomach, something alive and fluttering, a warmth that spread out from his middle into his arms and legs and his head, making his skin prickle and feel curiously alive. Remus on top of him was getting heavier by the minute, and Sirius was suddenly intensely aware of the way their bodies had connected when they'd fallen. Even through several layers of cotton and wool, Sirius could feel every detail of the other body against his, close, very close, an exact mirror image of his own.
Remus cocked his head to one side and smiled, and Sirius caught his breath. A sliver of moonlight had fallen across his friend's thin face, casting it into sharp relief, and Sirius was suddenly sure he didn't give a damn what the entire female student population of Hogwarts thought about him, kissing and otherwise. They were not the ones who mattered. God, no, they weren't. He raised his hand to his friend's face, but just at that moment, the strangest thing happened. They felt it both at the same time. It was as if something icy was passing right through their legs where they lay on the floor, like cold water, except that it wasn't solid enough to be real water, and then suddenly, the room was lit up by a pale, cool light, brighter than the moon.
Remus jerked his head around and gasped. "Nick!"
"My apologies, young sir and lady," mumbled the familiar low voice of the Gryffindor house ghost.
Sirius raised his head to look over Remus's shoulder, and there indeed was the translucent figure of Nearly Headless Nick, who must just have entered the room through the wall and passed right through their legs. But Nick had already averted his eyes politely from the two tangled bodies on the floor, and was gliding towards the door.
Young lady. Thanks. "I'm not – "Sirius began to protest.
At the sound of his voice, the ghost froze in mid-air, and then slowly turned back to them. "Ah. Young sirs." Nick was clearly surprised by the fact that the person with the long black hair that now emerged from under the boy on top was just as decidedly male as the other. The ghost cleared his throat and fixed his eyes pointedly on a spot on the wall somewhere above their heads. "Please excuse my intrusion, it was entirely unintentional," he said in a voice as stiff as his ruff. "I fully understand the young gentlemen's dire predicament and I shall withdraw immediately."
"What dire predicament?" Remus asked curiously, raising himself up a little, not bothering to keep his voice at a whisper. "His or mine?"
"Mine," Sirius said through clenched teeth. "Can you take your elbow out of my ribs, Moony?"
"Sorry." Remus shifted and rolled off his friend, propping himself up on his arm while Sirius struggled to sit up properly.
"Both of yours," Nearly Headless Nick said rather earnestly.
"It's not Professor McGonagall approaching, is it?" Sirius asked with a slight note of panic in his voice. "Or anyone worse?"
"You don't sound like there could be anyone worse," Remus said with a grin.
"No one is approaching, at least not from the direction I came," Nick said, apparently oblivious of the fact that it wasn't exactly likely that any teacher, caretaker or other living being would have chosen a path through solid walls when walking around the castle. "I was referring to the general – erm – objectionable nature of the – the activities you were engaged in."
"We weren't engaged in any activities," Sirius snapped, but he inched a little away from Remus all the same.
Nearly Headless Nick raised his eyebrows sceptically.
"We're both seventeen," said Remus soberly.
"I believe that is inconsequential," Nearly Headless Nick replied earnestly.
"And we were just practising," Remus added.
The ghost sighed. "I doubt this would be accepted as an excuse if you – " He broke off.
"– got caught?" Remus finished, unable to keep a straight face at Nick's pompous gravity. "I want to see the school rule that says I can't snog my friends."
"I want to see the rule that says you can," Sirius muttered under his breath, straightening his dishevelled robes. It was as if Nearly Headless Nick's sudden appearance had broken a spell, and Sirius was becoming more and more aware of the absurdity of their situation, and more and more worried how he was supposed to get out of it again without making himself look like a complete and utter fool.
"Well, it is not my responsibility to make sure that each and every student in this castle abides by the rules that magical law and custom impose upon them," Nick said importantly. "But all the same, I would be greatly distressed if it were students from my own house who were subjected to disgrace and expulsion, just because..."
At this, both boys sat bolt upright with a start. "What do you mean?" Sirius asked rather loudly. He shot Remus an accusing look, but his friend seemed just as surprised.
"Disgrace and expulsion? What are you talking about, Nick?"
The ghost heaved another sigh. "Just as I feared," he said. "Careless youth, carried away by passion, oblivious of the consequences..."
"Nick, they're not going to chuck us out just because we kissed," Remus said sensibly.
"In my days at Hogwarts," the ghost replied with an almost pained smile, "when two young men were caught in such compromising circumstances, they would be whipped half to death and then flung into one of the castle dungeons for a month."
Sirius and Remus both inched a little further away from each other at this information, until there was almost a foot of space between them.
"And compared to the fate that would have awaited them outside the comparative sanctuary of these walls," the ghost continued, looming over them, "it would have been a mild punishment for such an aberration."
"Is that what you think it is?" Remus asked after a pause. "An aberration?"
Nearly Headless Nick seemed to deliberate his answer for a moment. "No," he said then. He turned away from them to gaze out of the window, and then added quietly, "But that's what they called it."
"Did they – did they do that to you?" Sirius suddenly blurted out. "I mean, you sound like – "
The ghost gave no answer.
"Is that – "Remus picked up Sirius's question, but broke off again, too, not knowing how to put it into words that wouldn't offend the sensitive nature of Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington. "I mean, that wasn't the reason why you were – you know - ?"
"Decapitated?" Nick supplied helpfully. "Oh, no." He turned back to the two students and drew himself up to his full imposing height. "I was decapitated for high treason, of course," he said rather pompously. "Any less noble reason would have been below a de Mimsy-Porpington, wouldn't you think?"
"They were beheading people left and right for high treason in your time," Sirius pointed out dryly.
"That might have been so," Nick said, now in a truly injured tone. "But not every case was as thoroughly – "
"– botched," Sirius muttered.
"But you had – "Remus insisted, feeling, like Sirius before, a strange need to know.
"Yes," Nearly Headless Nick replied defiantly. "And I'm not ashamed of it. My years with Alfonso were the happiest time of my life."
"Alfonso," Remus repeated.
"Yes," Nick confirmed, and for a moment, his eyes were gazing unfocusedly over their heads again. "Alfonso. He came to Hogwarts in our third year, from the Spanish Kingdom of Naples. His mother was a Neapolitan witch, and his father was an English-born count. He was – ah, you would have to see him to understand. The moment we set eyes on each other, we knew we were destined to be together." His voice was growing steadily quieter and softer, and his pale eyes were almost glazed over with the pleasure of the memory, the two boys that were listening to his tale seemingly forgotten. "But to give each other even the smallest sign of this in public would have been impossible. Ah, we suffered. We suffered unspeakably. Our hearts were bleeding, while all we could do was exchange a look or a smile across the Great Hall and the classroom. Insurmountable obstacles separated us from each other... for years we suffered. Then we left school, and Alfonso had to return to Naples."
"Did you ever see him again?" Sirius asked curiously.
"Yes, indeed I did," the ghost confirmed. "A few years later, I boarded a ship for the continent as well. I travelled extensively in France and Italy, and finally came to Naples, too, and there we met again, this time free from the confines of narrow-minded school rules and the customs of this country."
"And were you happy then?" asked Remus in a whisper, guessing at the answer.
The ghost's eyes focussed on him. "Well, you know... sometimes the longing is sweeter than the fulfilment." He cleared his throat. "I returned to England after a few weeks."
"And then?" Remus prompted.
"Then I died," Nick concluded rather soberly.
"Oh," said Sirius.
"Sorry about that," Remus added helplessly.
"So you weren't – destined for each other after all," Sirius stated. It had seemed a strange, weighty word to use for such a short-lived relationship that had, in the end, not turned out to be what the lovers had hoped for.
"Well," Nick muttered, "for as long as it lasted, it felt as if we were." Then he made a gesture with his hand as if to wave aside a shadow that the story had cast over them all. "I shall leave you now. Let my tale not darken the joy of your togetherness. And nothing and no one else shall, either, if I can help it. I will station myself outside in the corridor, and I will let you know if anyone approaches who should rather not see or hear you. I shall whistle," the ghost instructed them, very much as if he wasn't employing this strategy for the first time. "'Greensleeves' for someone approaching. 'Now is the Month of Maying' for the all-clear."With that, he gave them a little bow, turned and disappeared through the closed door.
It was almost a minute before Sirius and Remus looked at each other again.
"Do you know 'Now is the Month of Maying?'" Remus asked lightly.
"No, I don't," Sirius replied in a much heavier tone. "And something else I don't know is how in Merlin's name I ever came to end up on the floor of the Transfiguration department with one of my best friends on top of me and with a ghost walking in on us thinking we were – "He snorted. "If you've been planning this all along, you could at least have brought the Map!"
"I didn't plan on Nick walking in on us," Remus assured him in a comically sincere tone. "Besides, ghosts don't show up on the Map. They're not corporeal enough. And Nick's on our side, you heard him."
"But it could just as well have been the Bloody Baron, and then by breakfast the whole of Sly – Remus, no! The Map!"
"What about it?" Remus asked, still inexplicably amused.
"We'll show up on it!"
"I bet they're watching, the bastards."
"Shall we give them a good show then?" Remus grinned and sat up on his heels, much like a cat again, this time one that was ready to spring. The glint in his eyes confused Sirius as much as their kiss had confused him earlier, and he inched away a little further, to be out of his friend's reach.
"Stop that," he hissed.
Remus cocked his head to one side again, looking very injured. "Alas, my love, you do me wrong to cast me off discourteously."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You're being unfair."
"Unfair?" Sirius almost exploded. "First James makes a fool of me in front of the whole Great Hall, then you drag me in here and start snogging me without warning, and then – "
Well, then, what had come then had been his fault as much as Remus's, or nobody's fault at all, just a succession of crazy coincidences. And then there had been Remus's warm weight on top of him, and the moonlight on his face, and that strange feeling in Sirius's stomach. That completely new, fluttering thing, half joy and half anxiety, that hadn't maybe been so different from that desperate, sweet longing Nick had felt for his Alfonso, five hundred years ago. Nick, who had only ever looked, and then died.
"Can you imagine," Sirius said, struck by the thought as he gazed at the door the ghost had disappeared through, "being so much in love and never even be allowed to hold hands? For years on end?" It seemed so absurd, a pointlessly cruel law imposed on innocent young people by a cruel society so very different from their own, so long past, so long gone. And yet -
"Yes, I can," he heard Remus mutter.
Sirius turned back to him in surprise. His friend had sat back on the floor and literally withdrawn into himself, his knees pulled up to his chest, his thin arms around them, his head bowed, hiding his face as if he was ashamed of something.
Another thought rose to the surface of Sirius's mind then, as if it wasn't in enough turmoil already. "And that's why you needed someone to practise on in the meantime?"
"Yes," Remus said to his knees, even more quietly.
"And what the hell exactly were you practising for?" Sirius demanded, and he felt a sudden twinge of pain. He couldn't have said what it was, but strangely enough, it felt closer to disappointment than to fury.
"Our premiere," Remus whispered. "Or so I was hoping."
It took a long while for these words to sink in, but when they did, the realisation hit Sirius like a blow. He was almost numb with shock for a moment, his mind gone utterly blank. Then, without thinking, he reached out towards his friend with a trembling hand, as if to make sure that Remus was real, and that the words Sirius had just heard were no illusion.
Remus raised his head then – but the look on his face made Sirius's hand freeze in mid-air. His grey eyes met wide amber ones, two deep pools glistening in the moonlight, and there was a sadness in them that seemed born of a despair so deep that it hurt Sirius's heart.
"Why – why did you never tell me?" he asked, his voice suddenly hoarse.
Remus forced himself to shrug. "As long as I didn't ask, you couldn't say no."
Sirius felt his arm fall limply to his side. No, he thought in disbelief, no? No more of this, Remus. No more feigning indifference, no more hiding behind stupid boys' jokes, no more playing tough, no more fear that the others might laugh. But no to you, never.
But no matter how clearly the words formed themselves in his mind, his voice was failing him, and in their whirling turmoil all his thoughts translated into was a helpless shaking of his head.
Remus sighed then, dug into his pockets for a handkerchief, found one, and blew his nose. "I'm sorry," he said, audibly struggling to return to his usual composed, quiet voice. "I'm sorry I ever said anything that stupid. Can you just forget it, please?"
But what Remus's barely disguised despair of a moment ago hadn't done, his forced indifference did now. It woke Sirius from his trance. With a stab of wild panic, he realised that this might be his last chance to once and for all put an end to what must have been a colossal silent misunderstanding – and that he was letting it slip through his fingers. There he was, stupidly shaking his head when all he would have had to do was wrap his arms around his friend and pull him into a hug so tight as to never let go of him again.
He gave an incredulous, almost hysterical laugh, and now the words were almost tumbling over each other in his haste to get them out. "Forget it?" he repeated. "Forget it? What good is that supposed to do? What is it that you want us to do, Moony, pretend it was just a stupid practical joke? Just another prank you played on me to go down in the Marauders' Annals of Magical Mischief-Making? And then go back to nothing but looks and bleeding hearts until we die, like Nick and Alfonso?" Remus gave a sniff at the last words, and Sirius instantly regretted them. "I'm sorry," it was his turn to say now. "I didn't mean it like that. I'm just – I don't know, confused. You confused me. Big time."
"I had to leave us a way out," Remus said in a pleading tone. "I – I could have ruined everything. Don't you understand? I had to leave us the option that it was just a silly joke, didn't I? So we could laugh and forget about it."
"But what if I don't want to?"
"You - what?" The puzzled look on Remus's face was almost comical, but certainly unintentionally so.
"You're not telling me you haven't even considered that option, are you?" Sirius asked, hardly able to keep back the grin that was tugging at the corners of his mouth now. "Moony. Tell me. What will happen if I don't want a way out? What will happen if I don't want this to be just a silly joke? What will happen if I tell you that that kiss of yours was the most fantastic sensation I've ever felt in my life, and that I'm a gigantic prat for pushing you away and ever letting you think even for a second that that wasn't exactly what I wanted, and that feeling you so close to me when we fell down there made my stomach flutter as if there were a dozen pixies imprisoned in it, and that ever since this summer, ever since those long walks, and just listening to you talk about – about life and everything, I've – "
But even before he ran out of words, for the second time that evening Remus simply took his friend's face between his hands and shut him up. And this time, Sirius didn't push him away.
They broke apart after a while, simply from the need to get their breath back, and Sirius suddenly let out an involuntary snort of laughter that made Remus raise his eyebrows.
"What's so funny?"
"You are, Moony," Sirius said, shaking his head again. "You and all those tactical retreat options and safe exit strategies of yours, that cunning plan of making it all look like nothing but a practical joke if needed."
"Marauder instinct," Remus shrugged.
"More than worthy of that," Sirius agreed. "Practice material. Blackmail. Honestly. I can't believe I fell for that. I never knew you could be such a scheming little – "
"Yes?" Remus asked, now grinning as well.
"Werewolf," Sirius corrected himself at the last moment. "Dark creatures. Nasty sly things. Never trust'em."
There was something decidedly wolfish in Remus's grin as he muttered very contentedly, "Only at your own risk."
"I'll take that risk." This time it was Sirius's lips that came down on the other's. It wasn't even as weird to do that as he had feared it would be. Not when you stopped thinking about it, and just did what felt right. And Sirius could have named nothing in the world at that moment that felt more right than this. Except –
Suddenly no longer content with just his friend's lips on his own, he slipped his arm around Remus's waist, wanting to hold him even closer, to feel all of his friend's body against his own again, just like when they had fallen down together. He shifted on the floor, trying to find a more comfortable position for them both, but then suddenly a hand came up against his chest, not pushing him away, but still keeping him at a distance.
"No?" he asked in a whisper.
"No," Remus whispered back. "Not now. We've got to save ourselves something to look forward to. Besides, Nick is waiting. And we've still got to get back unseen."
Sirius reluctantly let go of his friend and sat back on his heels, trying not to look disappointed. But the last thing he wanted was to push ahead too fast and mess everything up. "Next time we're taking both the Map and the Invisibility Cloak," he decided.
"Meaning we'll have to come up with a really good excuse for James and Peter why we have to go Marauding without them," Remus said sceptically. "Very practical. Ah well, James knows anyway, doesn't he?"
"I'm not sure actually," Sirius said truthfully. "I think it was half an educated guess, and half a joke. He thought I needed prompting, you know."
"Well, you did," Remus grinned.
"No more than you," Sirius retorted. "But I suppose the combined efforts of Mr James Potter, Esquire, Mr Argus Filch, Definitely Not Esquire, an unnamed stuffed owl – "
"Amaranthia," Remus suggested, sniggering.
"– Sir Nicholas de Mimsy–Porpington and his Italian ex-lover - "
"– have been enough of a hassle not to risk engaging in any more activities here and now, don't you think?" Remus finished the sentence and made to get to his feet, but there was still one more name waiting to be added to that list. Remus was still speaking when outside in the corridor, the first bars of a rather melancholy tune were being whistled softly. "Greensleeves!" Remus hissed, and they both held their breath to listen.
The music broke off, and they heard Nearly Headless Nick say in a rather unnecessarily loud voice, no doubt for their benefit, "Oh, good evening, Professor McGonagall!"
Remus and Sirius exchanged a very alarmed look.
"Good evening, Sir Nicholas," Minerva McGonagall's voice replied courteously. "I thought I heard a noise a while ago, and since Peeves has been known to attempt to smash up my department before, I thought I'd better come down and see if everything was all right, before I retire for the night. I trust you haven't seen or heard anything suspicious?"
"When did you hear this noise, my lady?" the ghost inquired politely.
"Maybe half an hour ago, or a little more," said Professor McGonagall. "There was nothing after that, though, so I didn't deem it necessary to check immediately."
"Indeed it wasn't," confirmed Nearly Headless Nick. "I've been around this corridor since that very time, and I never heard anything unusual. Maybe what you heard came from the floors above? I can assure you that all of your department is in good order and that there is no reason to worry that anyone may have intruded with ill intentions."
"Thank you, Nick," Professor McGonagall said, sounding relieved. "In that case, I can spare myself the trouble. Good night, then!"
"Good night, my lady."
Footsteps receded to the staircase again, and a moment later, the ghost had taken up a new tune, a much more cheerful one, and Remus and Sirius dared to breathe again.
"Remind me whose brilliant idea it was to hide in here," Sirius hissed.
"Oh, we'll go somewhere else next time," Remus said lightly. "What about next door? There's more room and less dust."
"The Transfiguration classroom? Are you mad? I'll never be able to concentrate in those classes again!"
"You always say you know it all anyway. Come on." Remus gathered his legs under him and pushed himself up from the floor. He drew out his wand, pointed it at the ruin that had once been the stuffed owl, and muttered "Reparo." Then he levitated the reassembled object back to its place on the top shelf.
"Heartless creature," Sirius muttered under his breath. "You could have actually revived her while you were at it, and she could have flown up there herself."
"And made a racket and more dirt," Remus objected. "There are enough traces in here without her to tell Professor McGonagall that her department has been intruded tonight." He waved a hand around at the floor, which was still as dusty as it had been before, but now with the clearly visible marks of more than one person having sat or lain on it.
"But not with ill intentions," Sirius objected. "Nick's clean out of it. He only told the truth."
- - - -
When they finally emerged from the dark room, they found the translucent figure of Nearly Headless Nick perched on a windowsill nearby, looking wistfully out into the night. The ghost turned around as they approached, and gave them a sad little smile.
"Thank you, Sir Nicholas," Remus said gravely, and Sirius nodded very solemnly.
The ghost doffed his velvet cap and gave them another bow. "It's been a pleasure, young sirs. Good night." And without waiting for their reply, Sir Nicholas glided away down the corridor and disappeared through the solid wall at the end of it.
"A pleasure?" Sirius asked in a whisper. "Do you think he's been listening at the door, or peeping through the keyhole?"
"Can you blame him though?" Remus said sympathetically. "Poor old sod."
They met no more obstacles, be they beasts, beings or spirits, on their way back to the Gryffindor common room. The Fat Lady in her frame jerked out of a doze when they approached.
"Password?" she asked, stifling a yawn.
"Hang on," said Sirius to Remus and put a hand on his arm, ignoring the portrait. "Just one more thing. Do you think Nick was right, what he said about – you know, about school rules, and about – "he whispered the word, "- aberrations."
"It's not like that any more," Remus said hastily. "It's not illegal, not now we're both of age. Trust me, I checked and double-checked that ages ago." He gave Sirius a rather apologetic grin. "But Nick is right about how it's not really generally accepted, either," he continued more quietly. "I could imagine – erm – "
"That my parents would hit the roof if they knew?" Sirius smirked. "Wow. That's almost a reason to tell them, don't you think?"
But Remus didn't smile. "I – I'm sorry, it feels a little late to talk about that sort of thing now, but maybe we'd really better keep it all quiet. For the time being." He suddenly sounded rather worried.
"That's all right. I'm not going to shout it from the Astronomy Tower." Sirius took his friend's hand in his, and gave it a reassuring little squeeze. "Although I feel like it," he added, and finally Remus smiled as well. "I can't believe we've just wasted eight weeks of free time and complete privacy with things like putting up ugly wallpaper, disassembling a Muggle motorbike and going for long walks, and the moment we get back to school we fall over each other kissing."
"Don't call it wasted," Remus objected. "I wouldn't want to miss one minute of it. And remember what Nick said about Alfonso and longing being sweeter than fulfilment?"
Sirius frowned and let go of his friend's hand. "Meaning we'll be going all the way downhill from here?" he asked rather soberly. "Is that what you mean?"
"No, on the contrary. Unlike Nick and Alfonso, we're not just phantoms in each other imaginations, you know. What happened to them was just reality falling short of their expectations, once they really got to know each other."
"And that can't happen to us?" Sirius asked, not convinced.
"No," Remus said. "Because we didn't spend six years only dreaming, did we? We went and had a look, and I dare say we've both got a good idea what to expect."
"Really? Oh, you don't know the half of it," Sirius almost growled, and felt a sudden urge to pull his always-too-rational friend into his arms again and then tickle him to the ground, just to make that sober and knowledgeable expression on his face go away.
"It's still going to be complicated enough," Remus said, bringing them back to reality.
"And in some ways, easier," Sirius said equally gravely. "You know, I'm not really unhappy that it seems we'll be missing out on the Obligatory Hogwarts Dating Routine after all. I suppose I'll have to ask you out on a Hogsmeade date now. Very romantic and special, isn't it, seeing that we've been going there together for years and would have gone next time, too, at any rate."
"And would still go even if you decided to drop me tomorrow?" Remus quipped, but there was a slightly tense undertone in his voice.
"I'm not planning to drop you anytime soon, Remus Lupin," said Sirius very earnestly.
"Then I suppose the next step in the Obligatory Hogwarts Dating Routine would be you losing your virginity in a broom cupboard?" Remus suggested innocently, and it was Sirius's turn to be surprised.
"My what? Hang on, how - "
"What?" Remus interrupted him, snorting with laughter. "What, really?"
Sirius stared at him, and then realised what he'd just said. "You – you complete - "
"Excuse me!" the voice of the Fat Lady called from her portrait. "Would the young gentlemen mind continuing that discussion inside the tower? I think I have heard quite enough." She was looking down at them with a scandalised expression on her round face, and was tapping her fingers impatiently against the frame of her picture.
Sirius gave her a dirty look, then turned back to Remus. "I don't care where I lose it," he declared in a defiantly loud voice, "as long as it's in your arms."
"Enough!" cried the Fat Lady, and in her hurry to get them both out of her sight, she swung aside even before they had given her the password.
They were barely through the portrait hole when the long, lanky figure of James Potter positively hurled itself at them from an armchair near the door, where he had sat waiting. He was beaming with excitement, his hair standing on end as if the elation that flushed his face extended to its very tips.
"She said yes!" he gushed. "I don't believe she said yes!"
Sirius and Remus exchanged a grin.
"Who said yes to what?" Remus asked mildly, feigning incomprehension.
"She did!" James almost yelled at him, oblivious to the strange looks their group was getting from the other students sitting by the fire, and punched his fist in the air. "She said yes!"
"Tell us all about it," Sirius ordered, dragging his friend over to one of the sofas and pulling him down next to him. Remus took the armchair opposite, leaning forward eagerly to hear the news.
"I came straight back here after practice," James began his tale, fidgeting in his seat. He could hardly sit still. "I thought I'd see if she'd – "
"I hope you had a shower first," Remus cut in dryly.
"Yes, of course I had," said James impatiently. "Anyway, I came back here and I just walked up to her and I said I was sorry and I didn't mean for her to get all soaked but – "
"– you still enjoyed the sight of her gorgeous body under those wet robes so much that you – OUCH!" James had delivered a slightly harder than good- natured punch to Sirius's shoulder, who in return swung a cushion at him and caught him straight in the face.
"– but," Remus finished James's sentence in a perfectly even voice, ignoring their little skirmish, "you absolutely had to let Remus Lupin know that Sirius Black was in love with him and you didn't have the decency to let him tell me himself once he felt ready for it."
"No, stupid, I just told her that – "James sat up straight again and distractedly adjusted his glasses. "Hang on, what – "He stared at Remus for a moment, then at Sirius, then back at Remus, opened his mouth, made a strange little choking noise, and closed it again.
"Never mind, Prongs," Sirius said cheerfully. "It only took Moony a relatively mild amount of torture to get the truth out of me. I didn't suffer long."
James, still lost for words, resorted to shaking his head as if he had misheard something.
"Sorry for interrupting you," Remus said in a mock-polite tone. "Go on, what did the lovely wet Miss Evans have to say to your sincere and undoubtedly profuse apologies?"
"She – she – "James stuttered, not sure if there wasn't anything more urgent to discuss right now. "She - just said that maybe it was time we – we just got to talk for a bit. Said we could meet at the Three Broomsticks next Hogsmeade weekend, and then go for a walk and have a quiet talk, just us two."
"And you said yes," Remus stated.
"Of course I did!"
"So you said yes to her, not she to you," Remus pointed out gravely.
"She said she wanted to talk?" Sirius interrupted them, sounding severely disappointed.
"What do you think she should have suggested?" Remus retorted, rolling his eyes. "That James should tear off her wet robes and shag her right here in the common room?" He gave Sirius a reproachful look. "Not everyone's mind works the way yours does, Padfoot."
"Hypocrite,"Sirius snapped back, and was rewarded with a truly delightful grin.
"Nah, Prongs," Remus turned back to the still very confused James, "that's a good start, you know. You won't believe it, but long walks can work wonders. The rest will come in time." He gave Sirius a wink that James couldn't miss.
"I – what's – "James looked back and forth between them again, comprehension now dawning on his face. 'Long walks' did ring a bell at last. Long Muggle Sunday afternoon walks. "You aren't – I mean, I didn't – "He broke off, and suddenly buried his face in his hands. "I'm such a prat!" he cried. "Oh God, I'm sorry! I never thought – I haven't ruined everything now, have I?" He looked at his friends in almost comical despair.
"Close, though," Sirius grinned. "Remus was almost struck dead by a stuffed owl because of you. That would have ruined the whole thing pretty thoroughly."
James visibly restrained himself from dealing out more punches, and instead turned to Remus. "I haven't, have I?"
"On the contrary," said Remus earnestly.
"And you aren't mad at me?"
"No," they said in unison, and all James could do was reach out with his arms and pull both his friends into one tight hug.
At that moment, the portrait hole practically burst open, and the short figure of Peter Pettigrew came scrambling through it. "Guess what happened!" he shouted at his friends, clutching the polished wooden box that contained his precious set of Gobstones to his chest as he came hurrying over to them.
They broke apart, and James shifted to make room for him on the sofa.
"What happened, Wormtail, you got a yes, too?" Sirius asked in an amused tone.
"More than one!" Peter gasped, his face flushed with excitement. "Lots! All of them!" He slumped down next to James, very pleased with himself. "They all wanted me," he reported, still breathless. "Unanimously. I've done it. I'm vice-treasurer."
Heartfelt thanks to Lazy Neutrino, for the most thorough, most helpful and most patient beta job on this story that I could have wished for. A warm thank you also to Diane, for our vastly enjoyable discussions of the characters, their world, and writing in general. And thank you to both of you for not allowing me to make Remus cry.
Of all the characters you could have walking in on Sirius and Remus kissing, the one who I figured would definitely react positively and understand them best would be Nearly Headless Nick – in my view the only obviously and flamboyantly gay character in Harry Potter canon. ;)
My apologies to the "real" Alfonso for borrowing his name for the story – I'm not insinuating anything, I just liked the sound of the name.
As of the re-launch of J.K.Rowling's official website in May 2004, we know that the real reason for Nick's decapitation was not high treason – I'm not ignoring that piece of information, but I figured he would probably be reluctant to admit the true reason to anyone!
The songs Nick whistles were very popular in the ghost's lifetime. "Now is the Month of Maying" is a madrigal by Renaissance composer Thomas Morley (1557-1603) that praises the joys of young love. "Greensleeves" is another 16th century love song (composer unknown), and "Alas, my love, you do me wrong to cast me off discourteously" is the first line of its first verse.
The purple wallpaper of Sirius's living room belongs to Alkari and is taken from her great story "Independence", which can be found in the Sugarquill archive.
Thanks for reading! Your feedback is much appreciated. :-)