Doubt truth to be a liar… -Hamlet
Chapter TwoOctober 32, 1981
James woke, the action in itself a surprise. The bright white room in which he lay dazzled his eyes, but the slight pain this brought told him he was alive. Yet—he'd recognized the words spoken right before he'd lost consciousness, spoken from the throat of his enemy and accompanied by a blinding green flash of light. If he wasn't dead, then…
"Lily!" he croaked, his voice thick from emotion and lack of moisture. "Harry…" The last came out in barely a whisper, as the strength of his horror and the weight of what was likely to have happened stole away his breath and nearly his sanity.
"He's awake!" The voice came from the left, followed shortly thereafter by a thumping sound as Alastor Moody crossed the floor to his bed. His vision blurred by the rush of tears, James reached out blindly, desperate for any sort of contact but dreading it at the same time. To make contact with another human being meant that he really was alive—to feel made Lily's death a certainty. Mad-Eye clasped his hand firmly and James instantly tried to pull away, desperate to deny the truth, unwilling to face this misery in front of anyone. He tried to form words, but both his body and mind were too weak and torn to choose whether to ask about his family or simply repeat 'no, no, no…'
"I know, lad," Moody said, an answering anguish in his voice that brought a bitter sort of comfort to James. "I know." The fact that the irascible man hadn't offered any condolences or reassurance was, in itself, a strange sort of comfort. They remained in that stance for a long while, the strength of their grip a kind of communication that was impossible for either to articulate any other way. Finally, the old Auror stirred, as though remembering that he had a purpose other than to share his friend's grief. James could feel the change in the strength of Moody's grip, and forced his eyes open, this time welcoming the pain the sunlit brightness of the hospital room brought to his vision.
"Where is he, James?" Mad-Eye shook their combined hands fiercely, tightening his hold to a crushing degree. It was obvious to James that Moody was furiously angry, but his own mind seemed to block out possible reasons, as though unconsciously deciding he had enough to worry about just now. He shook his head, uncomprehending.
"Where is Sirius?" the man fairly roared, dropping their hand contact and gripping the bed railing with such force that James expected to see the metal buckling in any minute. The stone wall that his mind had been building around a certain piece of knowledge crumbled at the sound of his best friend's name, and two separate kinds of horror struck James at the same time, one more important than the other. He struggled to sit up, ignoring the protests of his muscles, ignoring the weakness in his arms. This was an imperative.
"No!" he tried to shout, the word coming out in a sort of broken cry.
"I know how you feel, boy—send ME for him," Moody said fiercely, the glint of fury in his eye mixed with the terrible bloodlust called revenge.
"No—" James repeated, knowing that Mad-Eye didn't understand, and fearing that the coming unconsciousness he felt as a result of his desperate movements would prevent him from relaying this important message. "Not Sirius…"
He began sinking back against the pillows, thick blackness descending against his eyelids. This felt like the hardest thing he ever had to do, maintaining the strength to stay awake and prevent another senseless death—for he recognized what he saw in the older man's eyes: if Moody found Sirius, the Dementors of Azkaban wouldn't be given a chance to administer their terrible kiss.
"I'll find him," Mad-Eye promised.
"PETER," James gasped out, his breath coming in quick pants. He had to tell the other man, had to confess his foolish decision and face the fact that his rash choice had lost him his wife, his son, and most probably, his soul. Alastor Moody reached over and lifted him bodily to gaze intently into his eyes, and James welcomed the crushing pain in his arms, for all that it reminded him that he was alive, and she—they were not.
"Are you telling me you switched your Secret Keeper?" the Auror asked, his eyes searching James' for the truth. The effort of keeping his eyes open took all his remaining strength, and James had just enough breath to whisper a weak 'yes' before he lost consciousness.
Moody laid the young man back against the pillows gently before turning with uncharacteristic speed to head for the door. His mouth felt dry as he contemplated the action he'd taken earlier that day, as soon as he'd heard of what had happened to the Potters. As an Order member of high standing, he was one of a handful of people who'd known who the young couple had chosen to cast the Fidelius Charm with—and it looked as if even that hadn't been true.
Mad-Eye hoped he could contact all of the Aurors he'd sent looking for Sirius Black before they found him. His thoughts then turned to the young Pettigrew, his contemplations so black and the power of his magic so uncontained that when he drew near to a delicate vase on his way to the pediatric ward, the single rose displayed within it withered to dust and was blown away by the force of his passing.
Sirius Black liked being angry. He loved the way it made him feel—the rush of adrenaline, the powerful confidence, the raw heated fury that drove his steps and coated the back of his throat with a nasty, bitter flavor. He moved slowly, stalking his prey in the form that was best suited to his wrath; a beast was far better suited to tracking a traitor. He sensed that he was drawing near—the familiar scent that had just hours before been associated in his mind with happiness, camaraderie, and trust was now flooded with a desperation that all animals recognize as self-preservation. That Peter's version was tinged with the full-bodied odor of sheer terror simply made the chase all the more enjoyable.
He felt feral, in a way that he only now understood must be how Remus felt during the full moon—he needed to find his prey, he wouldn't be satisfied until blood was spilt—and the difference, Sirius knew, was that he no longer cared if that blood included his own. Using Peter instead of himself had been his suggestion, and Padfoot whined uncontrollably for a long minute, recalling his pride at the unconventional thinking; the irony of it was like a thorn in his paw that wouldn't leave him no matter what form he chose.
For who would suspect Peter?
He was very close now, and Sirius's jaws broke into an evil sort of grin at the slight difference in Pettigrew's scent—the idiot thought he was safe, hiding in a dirty alley surrounded by a Muggle shopping district. For a fleeting second, he contemplated the sheer satisfaction he would get from killing Peter as a dog, but when he rounded the corner nearest to where he knew his former friend was, he saw the reflection of Peter's human form distorted by the dumpster on which he saw the image. Padfoot became Sirius, and, removing his wand, Black turned the corner to face Pettigrew.
Whatever the outcome, Sirius intended to get his revenge.
Remus stood at one of the windows of the nursery, holding Harry and trying not to cry. Crying wasn't something he did often, but the time was nearing the hour when it had happened, twenty-four hours before. It was really unforgivable of him not to be with James right now—Sirius was still gone, having left in a towering rage to find Peter… He shook his head; the soft touch of his hair hitting his face as he moved was in direct contrast with the chaos that were his thoughts right now.
He and a scant few other Order members had been told in strict confidence from Albus Dumbledore that Sirius Black was to be the Potter's secret keeper, something that had worried Remus, as much as he tried to ignore it. Sirius's behavior had been increasingly worrisome over the previous few months—his erratic and dangerous behavior (his challenge to a pair of suspected Death Eaters to reveal their allegiances in the middle of The Leaky Cauldron had been particularly frightening) had gone from bad to worse. Remus had even begun to suspect that Sirius was risking all of their lives in order to force a confrontation with their enemies… and sometimes, Lupin wasn't even certain who his best friend considered to be his enemy.
All that time he'd spent suspecting Sirius, mistrusting one of his best friends—and Padfoot hadn't even been the one to betray them.
Remus wanted to rest his forehead on the warm windowpane, wanted to feel the sun's rays punish him for such a grave error, but he didn't want to put Harry down, nor did he think the little boy would appreciate the value of heated glass in quite the same way that he did just then. He wanted to go in to see James, but how did you comfort someone when all you wanted to do was cry yourself? He had wanted to go with Sirius, but the hotheaded young man had already gone searching for Peter the instant he found out.
Peter… So far, Lupin had managed not to think of his former friend directly, but now the thought of Pettigrew—of Wormtail—drew a pained gasp from him that had Harry patting his face reassuringly.
That the youngest Potter would be comforting him at a time like this opened the floodgates. Lupin threw back his head and moaned with the force of it, causing the little boy in his arms to shift nervously. The tears which had seemed just a moment ago as for the most part contained burst forth in a torrent; Remus brought his head down just as Harry lifted his small arms around his neck, and though it seemed like the strangest thing in the world, Remus rested his shaking head on the boy's tiny shoulder and wept.
"I was wondering how long it would take you to do that," came a voice from across the room. It was Albus, his tone sober and gentle.
"Why is it," Lupin managed to say through his tears, "—that only the very young and the very old are truly wise?" Dumbledore chuckled softly, and Remus realized he'd paid the man somewhat of a backhanded compliment. Somehow, his mentor's light laughter seemed exactly the right calming tone, however, without addressing the reason for the tears.
"Have you been in to see James?" Albus asked, and Moony noted with gratitude that there was no hint of censure in his voice.
"I just couldn't—" Remus choked up again, looking down through tear-blurred eyes at Harry, who stared right back at him somberly with his mother's beautiful eyes. "I'm a terrible friend," he said, shaking his head bitterly. "I should be in there."
"Remus," Dumbledore said with a strange note of urgency in his voice that shifted little Harry's attention to the older man immediately. The Headmaster of Hogwarts walked over to the window and looked out before he spoke again. "I need you to do me a favor."
"Anything," Lupin promised in a pained whisper.
"James doesn't know…" Albus nodded in Harry's direction, and Remus stared at the other man with wide eyes before looking down at the child in his arms. Harry was staring at Dumbledore, his small hands clutching at the neck of Lupin's robes.
"Albus…" he said, completely unsure of himself at that moment.
"You're his best friend, Remus," Dumbledore said to him gently. "Don't you think it would comfort him to learn something miraculous from a friend—particularly today of all days?" The old man reached out and touched Harry's head in a gesture reminiscent of a benediction. "James needs you," he said, meeting Lupin's gaze somberly. "Go and be his calm in all this chaos."
He didn't know what he thought was going to happen, but whatever it was, this wasn't it. It struck Peter as very odd that what he regretted most in this great moment of fear was that he hadn't dissuaded Sirius from choosing a canine animagus.
Peter had always been a little fatalistic, expecting little from life and cherishing the times when life had surprised him. He hadn't expected that his unveiling as the 'inside man' (his mind flirted with the word 'traitor' and rejected it as an oversimplification) would endear him to his friends—he'd planned to explain it away, should it be discovered… well, he'd never planned to give information in the first place, actually. He'd intended…
'What does it matter NOW what you intended?'
Everything had spiraled wildly out of control, and the greatest irony of all was that the side he'd essentially sold his soul for thought he'd betrayed them. Rumor was that Lord Voldemort was completely incapacitated—some said he was dead—and that the prophesy the Order of the Phoenix had been so worried about had come true.
For one shining moment, staring into Bellatrix's furious eyes as she spoke to him through the fireplace, Peter thought he might just be able to tell everyone that he'd planned the whole thing…
He'd just wanted to belong, to have a chance to prove himself with something better than barely catching up or trailing along behind. Where was the glory in being the third of three friends to become an illegal animagus? He'd thought that perhaps as a Death Eater he could at the very least command fear, if nothing else—but the Dark Lord hadn't wanted his public loyalty, he'd wanted a private spy.
Peter remembered just enough of Muggle Studies to tell himself that there wasn't any glory in being the Argos to Lord Voldemort's Odysseus, either—waiting for praise only to die after a glimpse.
Pettigrew slumped to the dirty ground across from a large metallic bin that smelled positively awful, his racing heart starting to calm a bit even as he stared around at the dirty, disgusting alleyway he'd stopped to rest in. He told himself he would wait a few more minutes to allow his heartbeat to stabilize (he'd learned the hard way that a racing human heart meant a frenzied rat's, near to the point of passing out), and then he would shift into his animagus form and hide out here for a few days. The Dark Lord would resurface somewhere, punish a few Death Eaters, and then Peter could come out of hiding and get his reward.
There had to be a reward, after all, no matter what the Lestrange woman had snapped at him. He couldn't have done it all for nothing.
Groaning from the ache of under-used and unusually tense muscles as he stood up, Peter surveyed the alley, looking for places where he was the most likely to find food and shelter as a rat. The world looked much different when one was a fraction of one's normal height, and it was just good sense to—
"You know what the most ridiculous part of your entire scheme is, Wormtail?"
It was Sirius Black, his tone sounding as it had during any number of the Marauders' adventures—playful, a bit mocking… but the strong undercurrent of fury lent a nasty sort of twist to the familiar voice of his one-time friend. Peter didn't have much time to react, and he thanked Merlin he'd already had his wand out.
Sirius was already brandishing his own wand, though the firm grip the other man held it with was the only external clue that Black was deadly serious. He fairly swaggered into the alley, his body language telegraphing the sort of casual cruelty and sheer contempt that Pettigrew remembered was the very thing this man hated in his estranged family. Now, Peter could see why.
"You didn't answer me, Pettigrew," Sirius said, his eyes glittering with a manic energy that was incredibly intimidating. Without thinking of what he might say, Peter opened his mouth to respond, but stopped as the wand holding him at bay lifted purposefully.
"You actually thought that I wasn't going to find you," Black bit out, his voice hovering somewhere between towering anger and hysteria. Somehow, Peter knew that there was no way to address the man across from him that wouldn't release the danger he could recognize in Sirius's eyes.
"I…" he began, trailing off and pulling himself back tightly against the brick wall of the alley behind him as even this small beginning caused a violent reaction in his former friend.
"YOU. You're STILL thinking of YOURSELF, aren't you, Wormtail?" Sirius hollered in full voice. "They're DEAD, and I actually felt like it was MY BLOODY FAULT because I told them to pick you instead—and you're NOT EVEN SORRY!"
Sirius actually laughed then, a hollow, ragged sound, full of grief, anger, and desperation. It was almost more horrible than the thought of whatever Black had planned for him. The laugh mixed for a short minute into a choked sob, enough for Peter to shoot a fleeting look around and note with sinking dread the peering faces of a few Muggles at the edges of the building that defined the alley, and cast a longing glance at the drainpipe not three meters from where he stood. The Aurors that had undoubtedly been sent for him wouldn't fail to question them as witnesses before Obliviating all memory of what they'd seen—there was simply no way he could expect to get away cleanly if they saw him transform.
The seconds trickled by, each more precious than the last; Peter could hear the sounds of muffled talking from the people gathering at the mouth of the alley. He watched as Sirius tried to master himself, the tip of his wand shaking slightly with the force of his maniacal fury. In that suspended moment of time, the only image that Pettigrew could muster was that of James, the tall, confident boy tossing his unruly hair out of his eyes as he told Peter and the others about how he'd managed to get out of trouble with Filch.
James. Wormtail felt his entire body tremble as his mind's eye superimposed his dead best friend over the living one; the roar of his rushing pulse drowning out everything but the voice in his memory.
"See, that's the thing!" James had laughed gleefully as the Marauders crowded around to hear his latest story. "People will believe anything if you spread it thick enough—all I had to do was drop one of the dungbombs at my own feet and toss the rest to Wilkes, and the stupid Slytherin took all the blame!"
"Tell me WHY, Peter," Sirius growled, advancing on him and dissipating the haze of painful memories, replacing them with the even more agonizing reality. James's words were all that remained, and Peter tasted a bitter flavor at the back of his throat as he looked past Sirius at the ever-growing group of Muggles blocking his only exit. Black took another step, then another—and the last puzzle piece slid into place.
When the livid man had moved forward, he'd revealed a nasty-looking rip in the dumpster behind him. It looked to be very sharp. Suddenly, Peter was filled with a fury of his own. 'This was never supposed to happen! It's all gone WRONG…'
"You tell ME, Sirius!" he cried, the tears of guilt and grief finally making their way to his eyes, a lump of dread and abject fear in his throat. Peter thought he saw a broom overhead, but it was a pigeon. The brooms would arrive soon enough, ridden by Aurors at least as angry as Black was.
"What the bloody--" Sirius began, but Peter was committed now.
"How could you! They TRUSTED you, Sirius," Peter screamed back, banking on the confusion, the disorientation that his counter-attack would generate. He started forward, aiming for the jagged metal and the one chance he had to save himself.
Sirius was truly laughing now; Wormtail thought that the other man must be so consumed by conflicting emotions that this was the only release. He told himself he didn't care, that it would help. 'Just a few more steps…'
Sirius blocked his path, and the dam broke in Peter. Fairly sobbing now, he took a handful of his erstwhile friend's robes and spun their bodies around, rearranging their positions in the process. The reflection of the horrified, stunned Muggles warped and distorted in the metal of the dumpster, and the thought of what he was about to do—what he had to do caused Peter to shove Sirius up against it. Black held his wand at Peter's throat, but Pettigrew didn't care. One way or another, it would soon be over.
A/N: I'm aware that something in particular is long overdue, and I'm working on it... wink