Sirius lay in bed, sucking pensively on a mint, as was his habit whenever he couldn't sleep. James once teased him that he did it so he'd always be ready for a snog, but in actuality Sirius found that the frosty taste helped him clear his mind whenever he was feeling particuarly agitated or confused. Tonight, after his tense conversation with Remus, he felt an unsettling combination of the two.
Rolling the mint between his teeth and over his tongue, Sirius quietly sat up and pulled back the curtains on his four-poster bed. His bed was adjacent to a window and from where he lay his view was completely unobstructed. In the darkness of Gryffindor tower he gave a feeble half-smile, remembering how he had laid claim on this bed just a little over a year ago. Sirius' habit of tracing the constellations helped pacify his occasionally muddled thoughts, and found that the tranquil round dormitory currently bathed in an ethereal glow from the full moon was perfectly suited to his inclination.
It wasn't the first time that Sirius had a nagging feeling in the pit of his stomach as Remus explained away his odd disappearances. Since he had always felt Remus was extremely trustworthy, definitely the least likely of the marauders to jokingly pull a prank on him when his back was turned, Sirius found the thought of him lying more disturbing than he otherwise might. Even though he and James were best mates, and could practically read each other's minds, it was Remus who he felt inexplicably drawn to. It might have been his quieter demeanor, or adorably lopsided grin whenever Sirius fondly called him "mate," but Sirius found him and his aura of mystery incredibly compelling. Except, of course, for times like these when Remus' mysteriousness simply annoyed him and kept him up at night.
If he was honest with himself, Sirius would admit that every time he saw Remus' crooked grin he wanted to reach out and hold his delicate hand, for no real reason except that he felt he ought to; and, if someday he acted on that impulse, he thought he would find that Remus' hand in his would feel rather nice. While Sirius undeniably felt this subtle intimacy with Remus, his shy friend was still more or less a puzzle to him. Usually that only encouraged him to find out what Remus was hiding beneath all those layers of stoic intellect and clever witticisms. Usually Sirius found his mysterious friend all the more likable because he just knew there was much more beneath the surface. Usually Sirius would be furious if he knew that a friend was purposefully deceiving him, especially a friend like Remus who was somehow more than just that—but instead, he merely felt that he was missing something. And this was unusual for Sirius, who had never before had the peculiar impression that he was blind to what was standing right in front of him.
After quietly crunching the remainder of the nearly-dissolved mint between his teeth, Sirius sighed softly and tried to focus on why he felt so strongly that Remus was lying to him about his odd absences. Usually they accepted Remus' excuses—visiting his sick relatives, attending a great uncle's funeral—without hesitation. But as Sirius began to know Remus better, he intrinsically felt that something wasn't entirely right with his friend. Perplexed, Sirius absently sought out the Dog Star—his namesake—and let his mind wander back to the evening's revelations.
Before he lost himself entirely to his reverie, he brushed aside a faintly chilling thought. He didn't know whether it was more comforting or more distressing that his suspicions had been confirmed. He wasn't the only one to have noticed this anomaly about their friend Remus—his Remus.
For the first time in his life, Sirius felt no urge to gloat or pride himself at having been vindicated. Instead, his chest had a painful hollowness that echoed his equally palpable feeling of being betrayed by Remus' deception.
James looked up from his half-finished transfiguration homework and eyed Remus warily. He was looking pale and nervous, but nonetheless standing resolutely in front of the table in the library where he, Sirius, and Peter had gathered to work on their respective assignments. James immediately understood what his defensive posture meant-- what it always meant when Remus excused himself from studying with his fellow marauders, only to come back right before dinner to hurriedly speak with them all.
"Is it your mum again?" Peter asked, barely glancing up from James' transfiguration essay, which he was carefully summarizing on his own parchment.
James blinked at Peter; so, it seemed he wasn't the only one who thought Remus' excuses predictable, either.
"Well--" Remus' voice seemed to falter, as it always did before he rushed on to explain that he had to travel home to care for his ailing mother, or attend a distant relative's funeral. Before now James, Sirius, and Peter had interpreted his hesitation as concern on behalf of his various family members; presently, James couldn't help thinking that his slightly awkward uncertainty was a sign of something entirely different.
"No, no, it's alright, you don't have to explain yourself to us," Sirius bit out caustically, putting emphasis in all the right places to show that he wouldn't believe a word of any explanations Remus may have to offer them. "We're only your best friends, you know, we don't require any explanations. Just go on, we'll see you around in a bit, right? As usual?"
Remus looked crestfallen and, if James wasn't mistaken, vaguely alarmed. Remus was far from thick, and anyone would have been able to detect the strong undercurrents of suspicion and hurt that Sirius' comments clearly carried. James looked up at Remus somewhat apologetically but said nothing in his defense. Remus gave an almost imperceptible sigh, shook his head as if defeated, and slowly turned around and walked away.
James watched his friend's retreat and turned to look out the window, not quite ready to meet the intense gaze he could feel Sirius giving him. The last vestiges of daylight were streaming through the glass and James could see the lake glistening as the brightly glowing orb began its slow descent into the horizon. The scene was similar, and yet so different, from the times before when Remus had come to say goodbye prior to one of his brief sojourns home. In the past they all looked at him sympathetically and wished him, his ailing mother, and his rapidly depleting family well. Recently they had begun to exchange odd looks, but then each would ignore the niggling sensation that something was not quite right and refrained from showing Remus any openly quizzical expressions. And now, after looking at Remus' guarded eyes and hearing his equally guarded words, James felt sure that Remus had been fooling him, Sirius, and Peter all along.
Turning away from the sunset, James finally turned and locked eyes with Sirius' heavy stare.
"Remus is lying," Sirius stated aggressively, as if daring James or Peter to argue with him. "I know he is, and I think he has been all year." A pause. "Damn it, I just realized, all of last year, too."
James, at hearing his own thoughts voiced aloud, quickly agreed. "I know he is, Sirius. And after what you just said to him, he knows we know it, too."
"I couldn't help it," said Sirius, his voice now laced with anger and mounting frustration. "I just can't stand how he can look us all in the eye and--"
"I know, Sirius," James replied solemnly. "I don't understand it, either."
"Yeah," Peter chimed in, momentarily distracted from copying James' homework. "The question is, though—what's he hiding? And why?"
They all sat silently and mulled this over. What could Remus possibly have to hide from them? They had all been best mates since first year and officially, at least officially amongst themselves, marauders since the beginning of this one. They'd pulled some pretty impressive pranks together (albeit Remus had been more reluctant than he, Sirius, or Peter had been) and all had shared secrets among his fellow marauders. What, then, did Remus feel he couldn't tell them?
Sirius suddenly pushed his parchment to the side and shoved his quill rather forcefully back into his bag. "You know," he said in a voice of forced calm, "I think it's time we found out. I'm worried about him—why does he just up and disappear every so often? It doesn't make sense, and we know the reasons he's been giving us are codswallop."
Peter snickered at hearing Sirius so deadly serious and saying "codswallop" in such a McGonagall-ish tone of voice. A glare from Sirius quickly turned Peter's snickers into a hacking cough, causing Madam Pince to vigorously shush them from a bookshelf not far from their table.
"Right then," said James, leaning in nearer towards the center of their table conspiratorially and speaking in a much softer tone of voice, "is it me or does it almost seem like he disappears on schedule?"
"On schedule for what? Missing transfiguration exams?" Peter said, wrinkling his nose and glancing back at his homework gloomily.
"Don't be thick," said Sirius, looking exasperatedly at Peter. "Remus doesn't need to skive off classes; he always has his work done before any of us and could pass the transfiguration exam tomorrow easily."
"Yeah, I suppose you're right," mumbled Peter, slightly embarrassed as he undoubtedly thought of his own grim transfiguration marks.
"I think you're on to something, though," continued Sirius, looking earnestly at James. "It seems like he always leaves after a certain interval of time."
"You know," said Peter thoughtfully, "my mum always goes twice a month to visit her uncle in St. Mungo's. He got a funny memory charm placed on him before I was born, and ever since he's been convinced that he's a famous American Quodpot player. The Healers can't do anything for him, but keep him comfortable and make sure he doesn't have a fit or anything when he imagines that a quod's exploded and his broomstick's on fire. Do you think he has a relative like that?"
James was tempted to ask Peter what the American sport "Quodpot" was, and if it was anything like Quidditch, but he quickly shook himself of that distraction. He and Sirius contemplated Peter's speculation for a few moments before Sirius spoke up.
"No, I don't think that can be it…" he mused quietly.
"I agree," said James, knowing that he and Sirius were both thinking along the same lines. "He's told us before that his mum's ill, or that some other relative of his is either on the brink of death or dead already; he'd have just told us if he regularly visited someone in St. Mungo's."
"Actually, it would have been rather clever of him if he had. Much less suspicious," muttered Sirius, obviously resentful that Remus would lie to them and then have the audacity to do a rather shoddy job of it.
"Hmmm," hummed Peter noncommittally, picking up his quill and pulling his parchment closer to him while peering back over to James's.
James exchanged a dark look with Sirius, and both knew that the other was having the exact same thought; Merlin's beard, they'd find out what their friend was trying so hard to hide from them, or die trying. Not that, of course, the latter was likely…or, James mused to himself, at least not very.
Remus inwardly cringed at Sirius' harsh words, but found that he could say nothing in his own defense. They were the best—and first—friends Remus had ever had, and he had been lying to them all along. As much as he hated to lie to them—especially Sirius—he knew he had to. Finding the accusing silence following Sirius' words too much to bear, he let out the breath he had been holding and slowly turned around and walked away. He didn't have time to deal with this right now; soon it would be moonrise.
Making his exit from the library, Remus pushed his dirty-blonde hair out of his face with one of his clammy hands. His heart was racing and his head throbbed. The effects of the full moon were never pleasant for a werewolf; the time leading up to moonrise and the time following the transformation were always draining. Of course, that was nothing compared to the transformation itself. There were no words to describe that kind of pain, nor the pain of facing it alone.
To his horror, Remus found that he was holding back tears as he continued toward the entrance hall; he couldn't even remember the last time he had cried. Sirius' words had mocked his own bitter feelings on his lycanthropy. He had long ago ceased asking the question why. It wasn't a question he could ever answer; there were no explanations, no reasons he could give either himself or his friends.
Scrubbing at his face angrily as he approached the doors to the entrance hall, Remus' spiraling thoughts were interrupted when he heard tentative footsteps behind him. Thinking it might be one of his friends coming after him to demand answers, Remus whirled around and tried to put an indifferent expression on his face. However, the mask faded and his face instead registered mild shock. It surprised him to discover the footsteps belonged to Severus Snape, a Slytherin second year who seemed to greatly annoy Sirius and James. Remus had never paid him much attention, as none of the snarky comments were ever directed towards him. He found that it was much easier to simply concentrate on his schoolwork rather than risk inviting the scorn of his friends were he to try and stop their verbal sparring. He was new enough to friendship that he always trod softly around matters of conflict. Remus would never willingly endanger his close relationship with Sirius, James, and Peter, even if Gryffindor lost obscene amounts of House Points as a result of futile confrontations with the Slytherin.
Remus waited for Snape to say something; when he didn't, Remus realized that Snape's silent stare was probably due to his sickly appearance and shining eyes.
"I'm all right," said Remus preemptively, realizing that he didn't have much time until he had to be safely ensconced in the Shrieking Shack.
"I wasn't going to ask," said Snape carefully, seemingly apprehensive that James or Sirius would jump out at any moment and banish him to the Forbidden Forest. "But the hospital wing is that way," Snape indicated with a vague gesture.
"I know. I'm not heading there," said Remus, turning away from Snape and making for the exit.
"Are you sure you--" Snape's question was cut-off mid-sentence as a group of Slytherins made their way up from the staircase that led to the dungeons. Snape looked warily at them, and turned back to face Remus with a sneer instead. "I would reconsider that, if I were you," he continued brusquely, giving Remus one last sweeping gaze before hurrying away.
Remus knew he looked very ill, but as there was nothing he could do about it he quickly put the strange encounter with Snape out of his mind. He pushed open the double oak doors to the entrance hall and broke into a jog, his head and heart pounding laboriously.
Remus' blood ran hot through his veins, creating a fine sheen of sweat that covered his skin. The muscles in his arms and legs were quivering, pulling taut not from his run but from lunar influence. Remus knew he had no more control over what was happening to his body and mind than the ocean had over its tide. He brushed aside his familiar disconcerting thoughts, instead concentrating on keeping his breathing as even as he could while racing against the setting sun. The Whomping Willow loomed ominously in the distance, growing closer with each hurried footfall.