Author's Note: I did my best to research, but I have this nagging worry that I'll get something horribly wrong. In the event that you spot an egregious mistake, please let me know, and I'll cry, with my face buried suffocatingly in my pillow and great sloshing tears pouring down my flushed cheeks. Then I'll see what I can do to fix it. Accuracy is extremely important to me.


CHAPTER ONE

Coiled

If you asked Remus Lupin at a later date, he would tell you that it began at a school hidden in plain sight in Great Britain, a school called Hogwarts, a school that was, to lost, lonely, hopeless children, a beacon in the darkness and an unimaginable paradise confined in a castle. But it didn't begin there, as tempting as it might have been to believe so innocent and innocuous a thing. It began in a dreary, gray room in a dreary, gray orphanage, when a boy named Jack took a toy from a boy named Tom.

Tom (never Tommy) Riddle had been very placidly bouncing a small red rubber ball against the wall opposite. For a boy of seven, he had remarkable dexterity, which was startlingly evident in the way that the ball rebounded impeccably and returned to his hand every time, over and over, with a deadening, relentless rhythm to the accompaniment of which Tom almost seemed to drowse a little. Someone who didn't know him might have thought he drowsed, at least; his eyelids had slid partway closed, and there was a tranquility in his round face; the glint of unsettling acuity had momentarily left his dark eyes. But someone who knew Tom Riddle would have known that he was thinking. Tom Riddle did a lot of thinking.

Jack Sampson was nine and mean-spirited. He was also quick. So quick, in fact, that he could dart into the room where Tom Riddle was tossing his ball against the wall and snatch the faded red sphere from the air before it returned to its master's hand. So quick that he could turn deftly on one heel and smirk at Tom Riddle with the triumph that belongs to a boy of nine who has successfully committed an act of mischief.

Tom Riddle's dark eyes had narrowed. "Give it back," he said.

"Nyah," said Jack.

The younger boy's eyes were little more than slits now. Jack Sampson should have noticed the eerie resemblance to a snake. "Give it back," Tom Riddle repeated.

"I won't," Jack taunted, dancing away gleefully. "I won't, ever. I'll keep it 'til I die, and they'll bury it with me in my coffin, and the worms'll chew through it and then I'll take it to Heaven."

"If there was one," Tom Riddle said, "you wouldn't go there."

"Nyah," Jack said again. His repertoire of insults was rather limited. In a few spare years it would have grown to include a vast variety of naughty words he'd picked up from listening closely when the gardener dropped the spade on his toe. "You're stupid, Tom," Jack said, although deep down, with a disconcerting certainty, he knew that wasn't true. "And you're small, and you're weak. The strong are always gonna' win, Tommy-Boy. You're always gonna' lose."

Tom Riddle smiled, but it was a smile decades older than the face it adorned. It looked almost reluctant to be settled there, uncomfortable. Tom's eyes remained untouched. If Jack Sampson had known what obsidian was, they would have looked to him very much like it.

"We'll see who's weak, Jack," Tom Riddle said then, quietly--very quietly. "And we'll see who wins."

Suddenly, Jack Sampson realized that he very badly wanted to leave. He wouldn't have admitted it if the spikes of an iron maiden had been rapidly approaching his vulnerable body, but he was suddenly afraid of the little boy across the room. Very afraid. He clenched his hand around the rubber ball, which no longer seemed worth the taking.

"You're stupid, Tom," he called, backing away slowly. "You're a stupid prat." It was the worst word he knew, and a decent parting blow, he thought. In addition, he pitched the ball at Tom. He missed, but the intent was the important part anyway. And then he fled.

The remaining boy frowned. He sat back a little, and he looked through and beyond the wall with hooded eyes. Tom Riddle was thinking.

The serpent had coiled. It would be many years before it could strike, and they would be small blows at first, small allotments of venom. Tom Riddle wouldn't be satisfied with that for long. Tom Riddle wasn't satisfied with anything for long.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Remus Lupin hated the tunnel to the Shack. It was cramped, and dark, and cold, and it smelled like wet earth and slimy worms and the slow decomposition of small animals. He knew better, but he always felt like this time it would never end, or this time it would collapse without warning on his head, and he'd be buried alive. Remus had given some thought to the prospect, and he had decided that being buried alive was slightly better than being burned alive and slightly worse than drowning.

"Much as I would love to look at your ass for the rest of my life," Sirius remarked, "you might move along, Remus, my dear boy."

"We all know you'd rather look for the rest of your life," James noted calmly. "No sense hiding it, Sirius. That's why you go through girls so fast."

"I don't go through them," Sirius responded. "It's more like... They fade, and I give up." He sounded as though he was struggling, and Remus got the impression that he had been agonizing over the subject. James had unwittingly stumbled upon the trigger to a mental mousetrap, and now Sirius was going to jam the cheese down all of their throats. "It's like--you know how when you first have a picture, it's really sharp and clear, but then if you hang it up in the sun, all the color gets bleached out of it, and then it's just kind of... grayish? Then it's boring, you know? And you kind of don't want it anymore, you know?"

"Nope," James answered blithely.

"Remus?" Sirius prompted, slightly desperately, as if he needed to vindicate such a long monologue.

"Sorry," Remus said.

"Peter?"

"Huh, what?"

"Never mind," Sirius muttered, somewhat darkly.

Remus emerged into the shadowed corridor of the Shrieking Shack and stifled a sigh of relief. No cave-in today. Though, he reflected morosely, there was still the return journey.

But that was a long way off. Hours.

His deep breath brought a quantity of choking dust into his lungs, and he coughed--a little feebly. He was already getting the shakes. It was close.

"Have you seen Lily?" James was demanding, affronted now. "To use your horrible metaphor, she's much more colorful than anything you've been working with, and she won't be fading anytime soon."

Sirius snorted. "Like you know anything about my very good metaph--Remus?"

"Fine," Remus sighed, twisting his hands together tightly to stop them trembling as he mounted the first of the stairs. "It's just about time, gentlemen."

"We'd better be ready, then," Peter put in. Peter had an extraordinary talent for stating the obvious. It had the combined effect of making people overlook and underestimate him. Both could be potent in the right hands. Remus doubted, however, that Peter's hands were the right ones.

He stepped into the hall at the top of the stairs. It was here that the dream took place--no, it wasn't a dream. Childish and sniveling as it sounded, it was a nightmare. And this was the grounds on which it occurred, in the dark hallway on the second floor. In the dream--the nightmare--Sirius was standing at that end, and he, Remus, was standing at this one. Only, you couldn't really call it standing, because standing implied an upright bipedal stance. Remus, however, had four paws planted flat on the floor and a snarl poised and ready on his lips. The young man was trying to do something--trying to change, trying to shift, trying to Transfigure himself into a different form, a safer manifestation. And it wasn't working.

The wolf could almost taste the blood. He could almost hear the heartbeat. He was hungry. Oh, was he hungry.

With less than a thought the muscles in his hind legs tensed and released, and he made the first bound across the ratty rug, the dust bursting like fireworks beneath his paws. Another bound. The young man's face was white, his lips working fast. He was saying the right words over and over, but he didn't change.

The wolf was very hungry, and the young man looked very appetizing.

The distance between them disappeared almost instantaneously, and Remus Lupin sank his teeth into Sirius Black's jugular vein.

"Remus?" Sirius prompted.

Right. Here he was. The Shack. The last vestiges of evening fading as the moon began to rise. Teetering on the brink of another night of Hell.

"Yes?" he responded. He stepped into one of the side rooms at random, his arms around himself, shaking harder now, cold sweat beading at his hairline. His vision was beginning to get hazy, and his hearing was improving a little. A breeze wormed its way through the open window and toyed playfully with the curtains; the rustling of them against the peeling wallpaper was loud, scratching like the fabric would gouge holes in the wall. His head ached insistently.

"Take a seat, Remus, m'boy," Sirius suggested, the flippant tone of his voice belying what sounded like deep concern.

Remus couldn't help but smile a little as he obeyed, flopping down into one of the highly-shredded armchairs. Every morning he woke up thinking that his friends would be gone with the rest of his wildest dreams. But every morning, they were still there. And on many mornings, Sirius was beating someone with a pillow to get his latest victim's attention.

"Nox," he murmured offhandedly. That done, he tossed his wand onto the bed and followed it with his coat and his shoes. Usually his clothes did something magical with themselves and vanished, only to reappear later when the process reversed itself, but Remus Lupin wasn't one to take too many chances. Besides. It was a nice coat. He'd saved up for it.

Sirius, James, and Peter clustered by the door, as they always did. The three of them, especially James, made a great show of being casual and leaning against the walls and the doorframe, but then, James always made a show of being casual. The hyperbolic extent of the motion made the artifice behind it all the clearer. But that was all right, Remus supposed. He would have been afraid of him, too. He was a werewolf, after all. Werewolves were dangerous.

It still hurt.

But it didn't hurt as much as what happened when he drew the drapes open and waited one minute, and then two.

It started out as a shuddering sensation, something that felt like the worst crawling flesh and goosebumps and shivering that had ever afflicted a human being. Then it was an itching, fierce and unrelenting, as the fur started to sprout, coarse and thick, from Remus Lupin's skin. The first wave of pain rode on the rippling fur as his tiny hair follicles protested, and he curled up small in his chair, praying hopelessly and automatically that he might not grow any larger so long as he did.

His prayers went unanswered.

Bone cracked and shifted and slid, and muscle swelled and shrank and twisted. Cartilage snapped and bent as keratin surged forth. The freakish figure in the armchair writhed, and even as it cringed, its teeth lengthened and curved to wicked points. A cry wrenched free of the creature's transmuting throat, a cry that began as an anguished scream and ended as an ear-splitting howl.

The three boys by the door huddled the slightest bit closer together. Three pairs of eyes opened just a little wider as the massive wolf unfolded its finished body from the chair and put one paw forward--towards them.

Three heartbeats. They quicken as one.

The wolf's lips drew back. It snarled, yellow eyes glinting in the faint moonlight that penetrated the dingy glass of the windowpane.

The blood pounds through the fragile bodies. Forward yet. Their fear rises about them in a pungent miasma.

"Now would be a good time," the tallest says.

"Very good," squeaks the shortest.

The wolf tensed to leap, and at that moment the three boys disappeared, and in their place were a rat, a deer, and a large dog.

The deer would be edible, and the rat might last a bite or two, but the dog looked more formidable. The wolf paused. Its ears twitched, lying down and then flitting upward again, as if as unsure as their owner.

Idly now, the dog stretched its forelegs and then proceeded to shake its furry head in a way that would have forcefully reminded even a mere acquaintance of Sirius Black.

There was a moment of silence, and then Remus Lupin wagged his tail.