This story is a follow-up to "Gone."
"This is much better than my house," Peter said. "Your parents are amazing, Prongs. Great Christmas presents."
"Yeah, they'll do," James said absently, watching Peter playing at Dad's buzz-dart game. He wasn't bad--he'd managed to get the dart to fly through six of the eight hoops. Two more, and he could actually try for the target. Remus was sitting in the window seat, pretending interest in a book Mum had given him, mostly just staring out at the dreary rain and the soaking Christmas decorations, biting his lip. "Hey, Moony... you think your mum and dad will let you stay until Christmas Day?"
"I don't know, maybe. The way they're talking to your parents downstairs, they might end up staying with me."
"Well, that's all right. It's a big house. We can avoid the lot of them."
"Are you going to tell them?" Peter asked. "I mean, about what Sirius did? Your mum keeps asking."
"No. I don't know. I'll tell them something. But they're worried enough about it coming out. I don't want them to worry more. I'll tell them Sirius stole my girl or something."
James took a deep breath. "Look, mate, you know he wasn't thinking of it like that. You know he wouldn't get you in trouble on purpose, any more than any of us."
Remus looked at him dully, then looked back out the window. "In trouble," he said. "Right. In trouble. I could have killed Snape. And they'd give me to the Dementors if I did."
"I'm sure they'd know that it wasn't you..."
"Oh, and given their view of werewolves, I'm sure that would make a great difference. They'd probably say that just proves that I can't be trusted to control it. And of course, they'd find out that I told you lot how to get to the Shrieking Shack, which is probably enough to get us expelled..."
"Snape's not going to say anything," James said. "Dumbledore saw to it. Don't know how, exactly, but if Dumbledore says he won't talk, I believe him."
"So we got away with it again. We might not have."
"And no one's feeding you to Dementors--"
"I could have killed Snape. The rest doesn't matter. I don't like the little greaseball, but I don't want to eat him."
"He'd probably give you indigestion anyway," James said.
Peter laughed. "Right... greasy food does that every time."
"That's not funny," Remus said. He wasn't smiling, as he usually was when he said that. "It disgusting. How would you like it if I started talking to you about getting indigestion from eating someone?"
"Depends on who and how," Peter said, waggling his eyebrows. The bird on the cover of one of his never-ending supply of girlie magazines winked salaciously from his back pocket.
Remus made a face. "Thank you for making the imagination even worse, Peter. I meant actually eating him."
"Sirius wasn't thinking that far ahead," James said. "You know that. You know he was just trying to stick it to Snape for being nosy. He probably just figured Snape would run back out of the tunnel screaming like a little girl."
"I know," Remus said, after what seemed like a long time.
"Are you going to... you know, get over it? He's still in the dormitory, mate. We can't just freeze him out. And he's my friend, too. I know he did a stupid thing, but--"
"I'm The Werewolf, aren't I?"
Remus swung around and faced the room. "He thinks of a prank, and I'm The Werewolf. Just like that. When there's no thinking involved, I'm not Remus. I'm The Werewolf. Do all of you think that? Do all of you think, 'Oh, if they knew what Remus really was--The Werewolf--they'd all run and scream like little girls?'"
James rolled his eyes. "Mostly, mate, I think of you as The Prefect Who Needs To Be Appeased From Time To Time To Avoid Point-Docking, and that if everyone knew who you really were, they'd know that the rest of us never actually get away with anything."
"And you're The Werewolf, sorry. But no more than I think of Wormtail as The Rat, or Sirius as The Dog. It's what you are when we're roaming about. You have my full permission to think of me as The Damned Deer, if it makes you feel like less of a martyr."
Remus smiled, somewhat reluctantly. "All right. Over-reacting, I suppose."
"Over-reacting?" Peter repeated. "I don't think so. He was completely out of control!"
"Is that why you were laughing when I got back to the dormitory and you told me Sirius was off trying to give Snivelly a 'big surprise'?"
"Well, I didn't know he actually meant to goad Snape into going!"
"Right. Sure you didn't." James shook his head. "Hell, I thought it was funny for half a second, just thinking of that slimy git prancing back to Slytherin with his pants soiled. It was only after that that I realized what would happen as soon as he got there. He'd be talking faster than a Seeker who got caught with an extra Snitch."
"Thanks a lot, James," Remus said, looking out the window again. "That's reassuring."
"Oh, be honest. What if it weren't the full moon and we put something else in there to scare him?"
"Something that could kill him?"
"I don't mean going through with it. I mean thinking about it. What if we put a dragon up there on top of the trap door and Snape prisses his way up there like he's going to catch us nicking butterbeer? You'd think it was funny until you really thought about it."
Remus didn't say anything, but at least he didn't argue the point. He went over to James's old toy trunk and started going through the prodigious collection of rubbish that had migrated there over the years. James let the subject drop for a bit. He thought it would be all right. Somehow or other, they'd get through it.
It got very late, and the rain wasn't stopping. Remus's parents had come in their car--it was a lot more useful for getting people here from the train station than brooms or Floo powder--and they didn't like driving at night in the rain, so Mum and Dad gave them the best guest room, high in the attic where the boys wouldn't keep them up all night, and arranged with Mrs. Pettigrew to let Peter stay as well. They could have had rooms of their own, but they'd all got so used to talking each other to sleep that it seemed like a silly waste of space. By midnight, Remus had drifted off on the camp bed Mum had brought in, and Peter was snoring in his sleeping bag, but James was still wide awake. He'd felt vaguely ill since he'd understood the implications of Sirius's prank and run as fast as he could to the Whomping Willow, shoving aside Sirius himself (who had been full of dark laughter that James had found disturbing) to get to Severus Snape before he reached the trap door. Snape had already reached it, unlatched it. He'd been pushing it open when James knocked him down in a flying tackle, but Remus had heard it transformed, come running at the smell of prey. James had reached through and slammed his nose as hard as he could with a rock, avoiding the sharp teeth at all costs, throwing him backward long enough to pull the door shut again and latch it. Remus had howled in rage and started battering at the wood above.
And Snape knew everything.
Sirius had still been laughing when James got back to him, dragging the babbling Snape with him, and James had hit him to make him shut up. That was when Albus Dumbledore had found them.
The queasy, awful feeling in the pit of James's stomach had started then, and deepened as he realized what was happening to Remus, as he watched Peter nervously shifting his position depending on who he was speaking to. The only thing to do was to get them all separated for a bit, try to talk some sense into them.
Worst of all, however wrong Sirius was, James was worried about him. That wasn't something he could very well say, of course. Sirius had been off his gourd for the whole autumn term, which was also something he couldn't very well say. It was one thing to call someone quite mad when it was meant to say he was fun and unpredictable. James had discovered that it meant something else entirely when he suspected it might be true. It wasn't the sort of thing you could say to your mates.
He tiptoed out of the room and closed the door behind him, making his way through the darkness, meaning to get to the kitchen and get some warm milk or some such thing, but when he reached the bottom of the stairs, he saw the lights still on in the front room. He frowned and went in.
Mum and Dad were sitting on the sofa, drinking wine and speaking in low, comfortable tones. The Christmas candles glowed around them. Mum looked up. "James! Goodness, I thought you'd been asleep for hours."
He shrugged. "No."
"Are you going to tell us what's going on?" Dad asked.
"Wasn't planning on it, no." He put a knee on the coffee table, and looked out the large front window at the lane leading to the house. The rain was coming down in sheets around the far-off Muggle street lamp. "Just things between the others. Not really mine, you know?"
Mum pursed her lips. "Mmm."
"Is it about why Sirius Black isn't here?" Dad waved his wand and a glass of warm mulled mead appeared. He handed it to James.
"Has he done something?"
"Yes. I can't go into it."
Dad looked at his hands. "He hasn't been... dabbling in Dark Arts?"
"What? Oh, no. Nothing like that. Sirius would break his wand before he started in on that." James breathed deeply.
"That's a big sigh," Mum said. "For something that's not really yours. Why don't you tell us the part that is?"
James shrugged. "I can't. It's about too many other things."
"It all seems to land on you, though."
James clenched his jaw. "Well... I suppose... well, I..."
Mum smiled. "It is yours. They are."
"No. They're just, you know, my mates. I'm not in charge of them or anything. I--" The queasiness intensified. "I mean, I'm just sixteen, same as they are. I can't be in charge of them. How am I supposed to be in charge of them?"
"Sometimes, we take what we're given," Dad said. "Someone has to. And I've never known you to shirk a duty. No matter who gives it to you."
"I didn't exactly keep the fireplace in the best order when you told me to when I was little."
"That's a chore, not a duty."
"And they're my friends, not a duty. I just want to, you know, be their friend. I--" He stopped talking, peering out into the dark and rainy night. "I'll be buggered. Er... sorry, Mum."
"What is it?"
James went to the window, putting his hands around his eyes to cut the reflection. The figure he'd seen moving under the streetlight had stopped, and was standing at the bend in the road, still as stone at the bottom of the hill. It was hard to make him out against the trees with only the light of the enchanted candles Mum had lined the path with for the season, but James knew him nonetheless. The queasiness disappeared, and something heavy (but not entirely uncomfortable) settled around his heart. "I'll be right back," he said.
He grabbed two cloaks (Remus's and Peter's, he thought) that were hanging by the door, pulling one over his shoulders and carrying the other. It took him five minutes to get to the bottom of the hill--surely Sirius had seen him, but he didn't move at all. When James reached him, his eyes were haunted and his face still and pale. The rain had plastered his hair to his cheeks.
James tossed the second cloak over both of them. "Stupid git, you're soaked." He tugged on Sirius's arm, but Sirius didn't budge. "Come on, it's bloody cold out here."
"Are they still here? I see the car."
"They're still here. Does it matter? Is that your trunk?"
Sirius turned his head slowly, like he was fighting against a curse. "I've left home," he said. "I don't know what to do. Regulus wouldn't come with me. I don't know where to go."
"Don't be absurd, you've already got here. Come on. I've got your trunk."
James dragged the trunk a few meters, leaving the second cloak draped over Sirius. "A hand would be good. Am I to lug your trunk all the way up?"
"I'm really sorry," Sirius said.
"Don't be sorry, give me a hand."
"About all of it. I shouldn't have done it. I shouldn't have done what I did. I spoiled everything."
James put down the end of the trunk and went back to where Sirius was standing. "They'd better not be looking out the window," he said.
James put his arms around Sirius and hugged him. Sirius responded after a moment, and James could feel his face working against his neck, twisting like he was trying not to cry. "You didn't spoil anything, you idiot." He let go and pulled away. "Come on. You'll probably have to grovel a bit with Moony, but you owe him a good grovel, so you may as well get it over with."
James went ahead this time, taking the trunk firmly and dragging it until he felt Sirius pick up the other end. They manhandled it up the steps to the main door, and Mum let them in. She did a quick drying spell on Sirius and fussed over the state of his clothes and Conjured him a hot drink. He held up his hand. "No, Mrs. Potter. Thanks, but... there's something I need to do first."
James looked up. Remus and Peter had woken up and were standing at the top of the stairs, watching the scene with guarded curiosity. Sirius went up the stairs slowly and stood in front of them. Remus and Peter ducked into the room. James gave his parents what he hoped was a reassuring look--Mum looked very worried--then ran up. As soon as he was beside Sirius, Sirius took a deep breath and followed the other two.
"You've got a lot of nerve," Peter said. "After what you did."
"Peter, don't," James said.
Remus didn't turn around.
Sirius lost his battle with the tears. He put his hands over his face and sat down on the window seat. Beyond him, Mum's enchanted candles lit the curved path below, making an empty half-circle shape around him. "I want to take it back. I would take it back if I could. I swear I would. I didn't mean to hurt you."
"You can't take it back," Remus said. "It's done."
"I know." Sirius swiped a hand across his eyes. "God, I know. I just wish is all. All of you. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I know it doesn't sound like anything, but I'm sorry..." He leaned forward, head on his knees, and continued to make his apology. James knew, somehow, that he couldn't be the first one to go over. There'd never been any doubt about him.
Peter watched him uncertainly for a long time, looking from Sirius to James to Remus, breathing rapidly. Finally, he strode across the room, sitting down across from Sirius, entering the circle the candles made. "You're an idiot," he said, punching Sirius lightly on the shoulder.
Sirius nodded and kept muttering.
Remus finally turned and looked at James. James nodded, not sure what he was reassuring Remus of, but whatever it was, Remus closed his eyes, fought with something inside himself, then went to the window. He was actually standing right in front of Peter, but in James's perspective, he was between Peter and Sirius, a high point in a circle of three. He reached out tentatively, and quickly flicked his finger at Sirius's face. "Moron," he said.
"Martyr," Sirius sniffed, wiping his face again.
Remus smiled faintly and whacked Sirius on the back of the head.
James stayed back in the shadows for a moment more, then went to the window and joined the circle of his brothers.