Midnight Meetings

And knowing you can help him cope

Gives you all cause enough for hope.

"So after we see Madam Pomfrey exit the Willow again, that's our cue?" Sirius asks Remus.

It is February, the sky overcast and the bare limbs of the trees silhouetted against it reaching up like black, skeletal hands. Spring will come only a month or two hence, but for now the weather looks too bleak to hold any promise of sunshine, and it is still too bitterly cold to anticipate warmth.

Tonight's moon will be full, and while Remus is slightly nervous at the prospect of company, unsure what to expect, the rest of them are eagerly anticipating the night. For the first time since their successful completion of the Animagus transformation, they will be able to join Remus in the Shrieking Shack once his own change is complete.

Remus nods, looking out the dormitory window at the grounds and the deceptively calm-looking Whomping Willow, quite near the edge of the ominous Forbidden Forest. The sun will begin to set in a bit less than an hour, and it will be time for his usual disappearing act. "Which excuse did I use last month?" he asks, fidgeting a little. "My mum had the dragonpox? Or was it my dad?"

"Neither, and that was two months ago," James corrects him with a wry grin, taking hold of his shoulders and maneuvering him away from the window. "It was your great-aunt. And last month, she died of the complications of the dragonpox, because she stubbornly refused to go see the Healer. So now you need a new excuse."

Peter, busy finishing the essay on Knarls they were assigned that day for Care of Magical Creatures, looks up. "You might want to avoid making up any more deaths in the family," he suggests. "It looked a little odd when you weren't miserable about the great-aunt, and anyway, if too many of your family members start mysteriously kicking the bucket, people are going to suspect something."

"I know that," Remus says evenly, glancing at the clock on the wall before dropping heavily into a chair. "And I try not to use the death excuse too much, because I have trouble remembering which relatives I've already killed when it's time to rush off again."

That's an understatement: Remus went through what had to have been his third set of grandparents years ago; it was the continual string of monthly disasters that seemed to befall him that first aroused suspicion in Sirius and James and Peter.

Fortunately, the collective memory of the student population isn't particularly long, and Gryffindor House keeps no better track of Remus' monthly falsehoods than Remus himself. There is occasional speculation as to just where he always seems to be disappearing to, but not so much that the rest of them are unable to cover up for him. "And to get the Willow to stop trying to kill us, we…?" Sirius prompts, trying to bring them back on topic.

Remus' attention returns to him, and he answers, his voice low. "There's a knot at the base of the Willow, near the roots. Touch that knot—if Wormtail has trouble reaching it, a long stick will do the job, but be sure it's thick—and they'll move to let you into the tunnel. A word of warning, though—the Willow doesn't stay paralyzed for more than a few seconds. Once you can get in, do it fast."

In this case, a word to the wise is sufficient: none of them have any trouble remembering the game students used to play with the vicious tree, daring one another to inch nearer and nearer while it thrashed and struck out at them.

The game stopped only after foolhardy Davey Grudgeon, who they all later agreed was not so much brave as incredibly stupid, nearly lost an eye, and the Heads of all four Houses forbade students from going near the Willow on pain of the loss of a hundred points per offender.

"And we should transform in the tunnel?" James asks a bit dubiously. "Because I'm not certain I can fit; the antlers might get in the way if it's narrow."

Peter shrugs as he caps his inkbottle and rolls up the essay he's written. "Well, the easiest way round that is to go in as humans beforehand. After Madam Pomfrey's gone," he assures Remus quickly, "but before you've transformed. Then we can change in the Shack, where there's room."

"That sounds sensible," Remus says quietly, glancing up at the clock again, then out the window. "I suppose there isn't another way to do it."

"Something wrong?" Sirius asks, meeting his gaze. Something obviously is; he can see it in his friend's face. "We can wait until we can come up with a better plan," he offers, a bit reluctantly. They all want to do this tonight, but they are doing it for Remus, not as a game. He has the final word in how and when it is done, and if he is uncomfortable, they will wait.

"No," Remus says at once. "It isn't that I don't want you there, it's just…I didn't want you to have to see." He pauses, then finally sighs, sounding resigned. "It doesn't matter; you'd have to at some point, so I may as well get used to the idea."

"We don't have to watch," James says simply, rising from his chair to lounge on the arm of Remus', which creaks warningly. "We're not coming to stare at you, Moony. We just want to help."

Remus shakes his head and half-smiles ruefully, saying without words that he knows they cannot understand. "I know. And I hope you can still say that once you know what you've agreed to." With one final glance at the clock, he leaves for the infirmary at a brisk walk.

"I can't believe he still thinks he'll scare us off," James says, sounding somewhat incredulous as he angles his chair so he can see out the window. "We aren't going to abandon him over this! We told him so in second year, and it's still true."

Sirius doesn't feel it's quite that simple. They've shown Remus nothing but acceptance for years; surely he feels secure in their friendship by now. "I don't think that's it, Prongs," he says. "I don't think he's afraid we'll reject him—he knows we won't."

"Then what's the matter?" Peter asks with a puzzled look. "I mean, of course it's a sensitive subject for him, but we aren't going to laugh or anything. It's not like we wouldn't rather he didn't have to go through this."

"He's not afraid we're going to hate him," Sirius says with quiet certainty. "He knows we wouldn't have gone through three years of hard work just for a lark—that was for him, and we did it out of friendship."

James nods. "I think I see what you're getting at," he says, still keeping his vigil at the window, "but I don't like the only other possibility I'm coming up with."

"What's that?" Peter asks.

"He's afraid of what's going to happen once we're in there, I think," James replies evenly, turning for a moment to face them. "That's the only thing we aren't sure of."

"Werewolves aren't dangerous to animals," Sirius points out, glaring at the clock, which stubbornly continues to read 'One Hour to Curfew'. Perhaps, to avoid the potential exposure of Remus' secret, it has been charmed against saying anything about moonrise. "Even Fantastic Beasts is very clear on that—'almost exclusively, they seek out humans above all other prey' or something. We'll be safe enough."

Peter frowns, looking a bit nervous. "You might think that," he says crossly. "You aren't bite-size."

It is probably just as well that James breaks in then, informing them that Madam Pomfrey has just left the Willow and is now crossing the grounds to return to the castle. "I'll get the Cloak," he says, turning to head for the boys' dorms. Almost as an afterthought, he says, "Wormtail? Would you mind transforming now? You can sit in my pocket or something, and we can move faster that way."

Peter indicates the affirmative, and with a soft pop becomes a slightly plump gray rat, then looks expectantly to Sirius, who bends down and obligingly offers a hand for him to climb onto.

His friend's little nails are sharp, but it doesn't hurt as Peter climbs swiftly up the sleeve of his robes to perch on his shoulder. Actually, it rather tickles. "Can you stay on there?"

Peter digs his nails a little deeper into the fabric and nods.

"Comfortable?" James asks as he tiptoes silently down the staircase, a bit of shimmering fabric wadded up in his fist.

"He is," Sirius answers helpfully, as Peter doesn't currently possess any physiological capacity for speech. "Are we ready?"

"Yeah," James answers shortly, throwing the Invisibility Cloak over them. "Can you run under this thing? I haven't got an internal lunascope like Remus does, so I don't know when the moon's going to rise, but better early than late."

They cannot be late for this. If Remus has already transformed by the time they arrive, it means entering the Shrieking Shack in human form and making the change in close quarters with an agitated werewolf.

Clearly, that is not a viable option. Sirius falls easily into step beside James, matching him stride for stride, as they sneak out of the common room and past the drowsy, somewhat puzzled Fat Lady before breaking into what he hopes is a very quiet run.

They race through the deserted corridors and out the front entrance into the deepening dusk, towards the center of the castle grounds where the Willow stands. He and James are able to remain together under the Cloak, although he has to admit that it is far more difficult to run in perfect synchrony than it is to walk.

He can't complain, though. Of the three of them, Peter, whose weight, amazingly, he can still feel resting on his shoulder, is having the worst journey, terribly jostled by Sirius' running. "Sorry," he mutters.

Peter squeaks an answer, which, of course, he cannot understand. Although he is quite fluent in French, he can't speak rodent, and so takes it as acceptance of his hurried apology.

Finally, they stop several yards from the Willow, breathing hard and flushed with the exertion of a sprint across the grounds. "Still time?" Sirius asks.

"The moon doesn't rise until after sunset, I think," James answers, reaching up to brush his fringe roughly out of his eyes and stuffing the Invisibility Cloak into his pocket. "And the sun's not all the way down yet. Anyway, we'll give a yell through the trapdoor when we get to the end of the tunnel, just to be sure. Put Wormtail down."

Peter climbs down to his hand again, looking as grateful as a rat can, and Sirius does so. "You remember what to do?" he asks.

There is no answer, but he watches as his friend scampers up to the tree, weaving agilely between the Willow's violent, lurching limbs. Peter reaches the knot at the base of the trunk and presses himself against it.

Instantly, the Whomping Willow stills completely, and a gap between its gnarled roots spreads apart to reveal the tunnel mouth.

"After you," James says graciously.

Obediently, Peter enters, and they hear the distinctive sound of tiny rodent feet scurrying away. Sirius and James hurry in after him, remembering Remus' warning that the tree will not stay immobilized for long, and the entrance shuts again, the light of the outside world plunging into gloomy dimness.

More roots reach down like so many twisted fingers towards their heads, protruding from the low earth ceiling. The tunnel is narrow, too, forcing them into single file.

"Ow!" James yelps suddenly. "Stupid bloody sodding—enough traipsing around in the dark!"

Sirius hears the rustle of fabric, and knows his friend has his wand out. "Lumos!" James incants sharply, and their path is immediately illuminated.

Glancing up at the rocks just inches above them, Sirius has no trouble deducing what has just happened. "Hit your head?"

"Hard," James confirms ruefully, pressing against the place with his fingers to check for damage. "It's okay, though. Come on."

They proceed down the tunnel in rather awkward silence, finally reaching the trapdoor and locating Peter, waiting patiently quite nearby. "Remus?" Sirius calls. "Are you"—he hesitates, trying to find a tactful way to put it—"all right in there?"

"For a little while, any rate," comes the answer, and they can all hear the wry grin. "I still have about ten minutes. Hurry up." Footfall sounds, and they hear a dull scrape of metal on metal, like a bolt being drawn aside.

James shoves the trapdoor open, then lifts Peter up. It is only slightly brighter in the dilapidated house than it was in the tunnel, precious little light managing to penetrate the cracks left between the boards barring the windows.

The room they enter smells musty and is full of ruined furniture, the destruction of which he can imagine all too clearly: it was obviously clawed and gnawed upon and finally broken apart after months or years of abuse. Everything is coated in a thin layer of dust, and Sirius can see grooves etched deeply into the walls. Claw marks.

Oh, Merlin. What does Moony go through in here?

"I would give you the grand tour," Remus says dryly, looking to them from his place kneeling by the trapdoor, which he shuts again and bolts, "but I think you have a pretty good idea what it looks like upstairs, so I won't bother."

Black humor. It does nothing to lighten anyone's mood, and the silence stretches uncomfortably.

"Are you certain you want to stay?" Remus asks.

"For the last time, Moony, you're stuck with us for good and all," Sirius says, mock-severely. He meets his friend's eyes and speaks resolutely. "And there's absolutely nothing you can do to get rid of us."

Remus heaves a sigh, then nods concession. "Fine," he says grimly. "Just a few things I want to tell you first, all right? I f you're going to do this, at least you should have fair warning."

"Moony—"

"Don't, James," Remus says flatly, an edge in his tone that silences the other boy at once. "I'm serious about this."

He looks terribly grave, almost weary, and the look in his eyes is suddenly much too old for his face. Sirius isn't even slightly tempted by the opportunity to make an awful pun.

"It hurts me very badly to transform," Remus informs them, his voice level. "I'll scream because of it, and you're going to want to come help me, but there isn't anything to be done. Stay back, and whatever you do, don't touch me." He doesn't quite meet their eyes, and the last words come quietly. "I might lash out in pain, as any injured animal does, and I don't have to be fully changed to hurt someone."

Sirius seizes his shoulders. "Don't talk about yourself like that!" he says forcefully, almost shaking him. "You're a human being, not an animal!"

"Humans don't change to werewolves in moonlight, Padfoot," Remus says with a very sad sort of smile, detaching himself from Sirius' grip. "And that's what I'll become—a vicious, mindless—"

"No." James cuts him off, sounding as though he doesn't want to believe what is being said. "You won't lose—"

"My sense of self? My memories? My sanity?" Remus asks, his voice hard. "Yes, I will. Why else would I do this?" He indicates the room in a sweeping gesture. "Why would I hurt myself? That's what you don't understand—my mind changes, too, not just my body. There's nothing left at all that's human."

The words impact him like physical blows, and he listens silently as Remus continues.

"I won't remember anything tomorrow but a jumble of distorted images and sounds. Don't expect me to recognize you, because that in itself would be a miracle." He speaks almost dully now, as though he is giving a lecture, knowing the topic well but harboring no liking for it. "And don't feel guilty if you can't stop me from hurting myself—I'd rather hurt myself than you." He rises and mounts the stairs, obviously intending to bear the transformation in solitude, without any witnessing eyes.

And Sirius fully intends to respect his wish for privacy and leave him alone, but at the first scream—a shrill, discordant sound of raw agony—he abandons that resolve, transforms as quick as thought, rising on two legs and falling to four in mid-step, and bounds up the staircase.

The upper level is in no better repair than the lower. The sole piece of furniture, a large four-poster bed, is positioned in the center of the room, its hangings tattered and its frame scarred.

And atop that bed, shrieking in the fashion that no doubt named the Shack, is Remus, features malformed and body misshapen—neither wolf nor human, but a nightmarish mix of the two, covered in fur and clawing the air with half-paws, jaw elongating to form a muzzle and open mouth filled with ripping teeth.

His first reaction is abject horror, and he feels a whine, unbidden, rising in his throat. Remus' first voluntary change was slow; he could see the wolf form emerging then—but that was nothing like this. The Animagus transformation looked perfectly natural, almost pleasant. It was fluid, painless.

But this—this is nothing short of torture, and he wishes with all his heart that it be over quickly.

In a few seconds that feel like a small eternity, Remus' cries lose the last note of humanity as the vestigial traces of his own form disappear, and his voice rises in a wild lupine howl.

Slowly, the werewolf gets to his paws and springs lightly from the bed, turning to face him. And for the first time, he feels a twinge of fear.

Those cold, appraising predator's eyes, meeting his in a ruthless, penetrating stare, hold nothing of Remus in them. There is no amusement or warmth, no human intelligence. No recognition.

Quite suddenly, the reality he had tried to make them understand becomes painfully clear: this is not him at all. This is something unfamiliar, something threatening, and as hard as he tries to remind himself that his friend must be there, somewhere, imprisoned in a flesh cage, he cannot reconcile gentle Remus with this creature.

Sirius forces himself to meet Moony's gaze, no longer searching for reassurance there, knowing there will be none, but unwilling to look away.

He growls low in his throat, baring his teeth in a terrifying grimace, and, seeming to come to a decision, begins to advance on him.

Instinctively, Sirius lies down on the wooden floorboards and rolls over to expose his throat, trusting the canine in him in spite of feeling that it is a Very Bad Idea, and almost goes limp with relief when the growling stops.

Moony draws near and bends to sniff at him, then takes his throat in his teeth.

Sirius is slightly panicky by now, as everything save canine instinct is clamoring that he is in an extremely dangerous position, but he remembers from his research what this is. He is submitting, albeit perhaps against his better judgment, and the wolf is asserting its dominance over him.

A quick, sharp nip, uncomfortable but not hard enough to break the skin, and then he is released and allowed to get up. Rising to his paws, he looks to Moony again, careful this time not to meet his eyes directly.

Nothing. He doesn't know why he continues to hope that there will be, that he will be able to find his friend within the wolf—he knows that Remus isn't even aware of what is happening.

But hope isn't rational. Hope perseveres in spite of logic's best arguments.

Moony's ears prick up as, no longer quite so preoccupied, he notices the same sounds that Sirius can hear downstairs: the scritch-scratching of Peter's tiny paws scrabbling over the floor; the dull thump of James' hooves as he paces back and forth in the confined space.

If he goes to join them, will Moony follow? And is it a good idea if he does? It's possible to anticipate his behavior with another canine, but how will he react to a stag and a rat?

We're about to find out, I guess, he thinks darkly, watching as Moony decides that following him is out of the question and takes the lead. Sirius heaves a sigh, wishing he could call out a warning as he pads down the stairs.

Wormtail is quivering as the wolf sniffs him disinterestedly, and scampers beneath a ruined table the instant Moony dismisses him as unimportant and moves on to Prongs.

They stand at opposite ends of the room, each assessing the other, and Sirius can see the horrifying realization dawn in James' large cervine eyes, and he nods assent. Yes, he has it right. Remus is—he grapples mentally for a word—dormant for the moment.

Reading the tacit message, James nods in return, looking rather grim, then lowers his head, displaying the stag's impressive rack of antlers, and snorts a threat. Evidently, James has decided to take the offensive and challenge Moony's authority.

As far as self-preservation goes, Sirius feels that this is an act of unmitigated stupidity: he wouldn't bet on James against the kind of destructive fury he has seen that the wolf is capable of unleashing, both in this room and on Remus.

But he realizes, too, that the hierarchy being established will affect them all for moons to come, and that it is better that Moony isn't in charge, because he isn't even slightly rational. If James leads, someone reasonably sane will have the final word.

And James knows that. He also knows that if it comes down to a real fight between them, he will probably lose. He doesn't like the look of Moony's teeth, either.

So he does the one thing neither Sirius, nor the werewolf, has been expecting him to do: he strikes first. After a few hard kicks to Moony's flanks, he manages to knock him, snarling, to his side, pinning him down with his forelegs and bowing his head, bringing his antlers within an inch of the werewolf's own throat.

Moony makes a half-hearted attempt to bite, but he knows he is beaten and finally whines submission.

James, though still wary, understands the meaning of the gesture and steps back, allowing the werewolf to stand up. Ignoring Peter, he looks to Sirius and James in turn, seeming rather puzzled. Perhaps they are all asking the same question: Now what?

There are hours left before the moon will set and allow Remus to reclaim his proper form, and now that his alter ego is no longer threatening them, they have no idea what should be done to spend the remainder of the night.

Sirius considers. Really, there are only two choices—they can remain where they are, doing essentially nothing but staring at one another, or they can find a way outside and head for the forest.

If the trapdoor leads into the Willow, it also leads out of it. And he supposes he is quite capable of opening it, in spite of his current lack of the appendages that would ordinarily be necessary.

Right. Decision made—outside we go. He crosses the room to inspect the trapdoor. Remus has bolted it, of course, but it doesn't seem to be enchanted to remain locked. Deliberately, he nudges the bolt out with a forepaw, then makes a few attempts at lifting up the trapdoor by holding the bolt in his teeth.

He discovers very quickly that teeth are not meant to be used to lift trapdoors.

No wonder no one bothered charming this, he thinks ruefully. Even if Moony had the presence of mind to unlock it—which he doesn't—there's no way he could open it.

One needed hands to do that. Hands with fingers that could grasp and hold and arms that could lift. Peter is too small to do any good, and James' hooves would be less functional in this task than his own paws.

But is he really foolish enough to chance changing back long enough to open the door? He has every reason to believe Moony will attack him if he does, and neither of the two possible outcomes is appealing. He might be killed or bitten—either would be an indelible stain on Remus' conscience.

Still, he can change in an instant now, far more quickly than Moony can reach him. And it takes very little time to lift a trapdoor.

Remus would kill you for this, you know, whispers his conscience. Sure, he never told you not to change back while you're in here, but he gave your intelligence a bit more credit than that—only a complete idiot would even think of doing something so stupid!

Sirius ignores the warning, reassumes human form, throws the trapdoor open, and transforms again, glad that it is all over too quickly for Moony to take notice. And he realizes that he doesn't have to worry about what Remus will think—Remus will not remember any of what occurs tonight, which, now that he thinks about it, is probably a good thing. He has a sneaking suspicion that he would not approve of their taking the werewolf outdoors.

James, however, has seen what he has done, and jabs him sharply with his antlers, seeming to glare, his demeanor radiating disapproval.

Grinning in the canine fashion, jaws open and tongue lolling out, he springs down the trapdoor and begins to traverse the passageway. There is a snort from behind him, then something of a sigh, and James moves to fall into step behind him, antlers scraping the earthen walls of the tunnel, but there is room enough, albeit just barely.

He hears Wormtail scampering along somewhere underfoot, and Moony padding calmly along behind Prongs.

And, now that it is far too late to do anything about it, he wonders just how the hell are they going to be able to get Moony back into the Shack before morning, and if he has just done something terribly, terribly wrong, putting them all in a situation over which they will have no control.

His worries evaporate almost at once in the open air, cold and crisp as it courses over his coat. Just a few dozen yards beyond the Willow, he can see the Forbidden Forest, which somehow seems much less threatening to him now than it does when he is human. The grass is damp and cool beneath his paws, and the wind carries a myriad of wonderful scents and sounds: the musk of earth and the tang of pine, the low hoot of the owls on their nightly sojourns from the Owlery, the footfalls of the forest creatures—and he is filled with the desire to explore.

Without thinking, he drops into a half-familiar Come play! posture, then leads the way, streaking through the trees at a run. Moony lopes up beside him, all aggression forgotten now, looking as though he is enjoying this glorious freedom as much as Sirius himself. There is no indicant of humanity, but there is something like joy.

Sirius can identify, feeling that running this way was what the canids were made for. He is not winded, is not tired—he can hear Prongs' hooves thundering behind him and Moony's paws falling lightly alongside, and all he wants to do is run faster

The deep, wild bay that bursts from his throat, prompted not so much consciously as by the sheer wonder of the moment, is joined in an instant by Moony's howl—an undulating call that is hauntingly beautiful, now that it is not sullied with pain—and together, they call out to moon and stars and sky.

Later, he cannot be sure how much time passed like that, everything blurred into simple sensation and feelings he has no human words for. Now, as the night envelops them, nothing matters but Moony beside him and Prongs behind him (Wormtail having climbed to cling onto his antlers for dear life), and the undiluted, overwhelming joy.

They have enough presence of mind to turn back towards the Hogwarts grounds when the eastern sky begins to lighten with the first signs of dawn. By now, James has fallen into step beside them; Peter, no longer perched atop James, is scampering tiredly behind, and Sirius has slowed to a walk. Moony, too, has ceased to run, and although he cannot know the agony that is to come, he looks almost sober.

James stops when the castle comes into sight, still very distant, and Sirius understands: no one must know that Remus has been outdoors tonight, and so his cries must not be heard.

Sirius looks to James and Peter when they see the werewolf's limbs begin to tremble and his body tense, and they all take a few steps back, reaching what seems to be a safe distance just the as the sun rises over the horizon and an agonized, dissonant howl peals to the heavens.

The change is no gentler this time, no less grotesque. They all watch, transfixed, in mute horror as Remus begins to emerge from the lupine body, fur receding into flesh, teeth dwindling, the werewolf's short hind and forelimbs extending to legs and arms and paws shifting to hands and feet.

But it is worst of all to see Remus' face on that deformed horror, contorted in a tormented scream and wet with tears.

Finally, it is over, and he falls silent, sprawled on the ground, his breath coming in ragged gasps.

They reassume their own forms and gather around him, all unsure of the right words. At last, Sirius breaks the silence. "Remus?"

His eyes open, and he stares at them for an instant, dazed, before awareness—thank Merlin!—returns, and he gauges his surroundings, looking slightly puzzled. "Why'm I outside?" he rasps.

"We took you for a run," James says brightly, pasting on a smile that, Sirius knows, is born out of relief rather than cheer. "You looked like you enjoyed it."

Remus makes a meaningless noise in answer. Whether it is pain or disapproval or acknowledgement, he can't guess.

"We need to go back to the Shack now," Peter says apologetically. "This is probably a stupid question, but can you walk?"

James frowns at Peter and elbows him in the ribs.

Remus, however, laughs hoarsely, sounding almost amused. "Do I look like I can?"

He doesn't look as though he can stand up, never mind walk. Thankfully, they are saved deciding whether or not to tell him so, as he lapses into unconsciousness—brought on, no doubt, by the combined pain of the ordeal and the resulting exhaustion.

It is too far to the castle and Remus too heavy to consider picking him up and carrying him. Sirius casts a Mobilicorpus Charm, which lifts him up like a marionette on invisible strings, and wordlessly, the four of them make their way back through the forest to the Willow.

Back in the Shrieking Shack, he breaks the charm, letting his friend fall gently to the bed upstairs. The room has lost much of the horror of the night, sunlight creeping through the cracks between the boards over the windows.

Remus' face is colorless, and even in sleep, his expression shows a trace of pain. But there are no new wounds this month, no bloodshed. That, at least, must count for something. Mustn't it?

"It seems like so little, doesn't it?" James asks, speaking for all of them. "Like nothing we did last night even mattered…."

"It did matter."

Remus' voice is so soft that they almost miss hearing it, even in the near-silence. "I can't remember very much, but what I do remember isn't all blood and madness. You've done everything anyone could do for me." There is a quiet assurance in his tone, despite its lack of volume. "It did matter," he repeats.

"What do you remember?" Sirius ventures.

"I wasn't in very much pain after it was over, and I wasn't shut in, and I wasn't alone," Remus answers, making an effort to sit up and finally managing to lean against the headboard. "And even though it was—so far beyond stupid to take me outside—I'd never spent such a nice moon. I'm thankful for all of that, so don't you dare act like it meant nothing. To me, it was everything it could possibly have been."

They have no time to answer, hearing Madam Pomfrey approaching the stairs. James throws the Invisibility Cloak over them, and they steal out of the trapdoor as soon as she moves to Remus' bedside, exclaiming with quiet surprise at the lack of damage.

The journey back to the castle through the now-familiar passageway ends in the dormitory, where they all slip quietly back into their neglected beds. Unlike Remus, they don't have an excuse to make up a night's missed rest in the infirmary, and they trust he will forgive them for dispensing with the usual post-transformation visit. Somehow, it doesn't seem all that necessary now.

"James?" he whispers, peering at his friend in the dim light. "You awake?"

"I'm trying not to be," James says sleepily, slightly irritated. "Remember, we have Charms in an hour. What is it?"

"I think Moony's right," he says musingly, raising his voice a little to be heard over Peter's snores. "We really did do him some real good."

"Yeah," James agrees, raising his head slightly and half-smiling. "We did. And someday…"

Yes, someday, he thinks, hovering at the edge of sleep.

Perhaps, on some far-distant night, Remus will be able to see the full moon through his own, human eyes—without agony, without fear. Perhaps someday, he will be free of the curse.

But today, they have kept him from at least some pain. Today, they have fulfilled a promise, shared pain and joy. And although it is not the miracle he would give his friend, if only he could, it does matter. It is important.

It is a beginning.

Finite Incantantem.