"But apart from my transformations, I was happier than I had been in my life. For the first time ever, I had friends, three great friends. Sirius Black… Peter Pettigrew…and, of course, your father, Harry--James Potter." ~ J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The singsong voice of the barkeep cut through the hubbub of a dozen different conversations.
Last call. What bleary-eyed pub denizen can afford to ignore those words? And hard words they are, like cold water thrown on a wet dream, capable of slicing through heated arguments, passionate kisses, or drunken bickering.
"Last call, ladies and gents."
Witches, wizards, and assorted other beings roused themselves from their tables, each one a self-contained universe where life and loves were rehashed, or swept under the rug with the next drink. Some shambled toward the bar, on autopilot more than anything else, while others dragged their chatter along with them, not able to let go of the thread even when the promise of the last drink called.
At one particular table, however, a quartet of young men--obviously old friends from the loud words interspersed with long silences--seemed too intent on squabbling to heed the all-important call.
Recent students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry would certainly have recognized two of them at once; the pair of dark-haired men had been part of the most successful Quidditch team that Gryffindor House had fielded in fifty years. Perhaps there would have been a bit of discussion as to why James Potter was now working for the Ministry of Magic instead of playing Chaser for Puddlemere United and why Sirius Black hadn't been convicted of any crime yet. The other two men at their table would probably have looked familiar without being memorable, as friends of the famous and infamous often do.
"Okay. Maybe the invisibility cloak was a bad idea." Sirius Black tried to hide a yawn from his friends as he ran his fingers over the large purple bruise splayed across one cheek.
"Bloody well can't fit all four of us under it anymore, can we?" James Potter, who had longer black hair that favored unruly spikes and horn-rimmed glasses balanced precariously on the end of his nose, directed his attention to the ceiling while massaging an obviously stiff neck. Judging by the unnatural angle, it looked as if it couldn't help but be painful. His drink had barely been touched.
"Oh, James, your neck's still bothering you, isn't it? Are you sure you'll be all right for the wedding tomorrow?" the smallest of the four asked. He alternated between toying with his empty beer glass and playing with the contents of his pockets, while scanning the faces of his companions with beady brown eyes.
"Always a master of the obvious, eh, Peter?" Sirius snapped, but softened slightly upon seeing the look of terror that sprang across Peter's face like a rabbit flushed from its hole by a hound. "James just needs to relax, have some fun." He scowled a bit and went on, "If I can't find a bit of fun in London, then--"
"Last call, y'know," said the fourth man. He eyed his nearly empty pint of bitter and downed it with a shrug.
"Well spotted, Remus, old man," Sirius replied, forcing a smile that caused the bruised side of his face to twinge painfully. "The night is still young…and, hey, it wasn't my fault that--anyway, let's have another round, while I work out what to do next."
"Perhaps you're forgetting that we're broke." Remus pushed an overgrown tangle of brown hair out of his eyes and stared levelly at Sirius.
"Nah, we've just shot our wad of Muggle money," Sirius didn't bother to hide his irritation, "which they won't take in the Leaky Cauldron anyway."
"Maybe we ought to call it a night…" Remus looked down at his empty glass and chose his words carefully. "It's late and you haven't slept in--"
"Too bloody boring for you?" Sirius fired back and knocked over the empty pint beside him with a sudden sweep of his hand. Peter hastily grabbed the careening glass before it rolled off the table. "Maybe you'd like to go back to your sodding walking tour of sodding Cornwall?"
"I didn't say that, no." Remus frowned and reconsidered his last statement
"Maybe you just don't like girls." Sirius leered at him. "Rather be poking into ruined castles looking for Dark--"
"Sirius--Ow!" James turned to glare at Sirius rather more suddenly than his stiff neck would allow. His shoulders tensed and he froze in pain. Through clenched teeth, he muttered, "Will you two stop it? You've been at it all evening like a pair of goblins with only one Galleon between you. Can't you just--"
"One more round, eh?" Peter interjected, his watery eyes pleading with his three friends, who were all glaring at each other. "What do you say?"
All four fell silent and the babble of the pub washed over the table like the surge of an ocean wave noisily filling an empty tide pool. Remus sighed and massaged his temples. If only his head would stop aching; if only the Titans clashing inside his skull would leave him in peace. The loud Muggle clubs to which Sirius had dragged them had certainly not helped. This smoke-filled pub hadn't been much better.
He was overreacting, spoiling the fun. And it should have been fun, a lighthearted night out in James's honor. This could be the last chance for all four of them to be together--they who had been so inseparable at school through seven years of pranks, shared adventures, and near-brushes with death and detention. Leaving Hogwarts hadn't changed their friendship that he could see, but the world seemed determined to pull them apart. And, after tomorrow, James would be a married man.
"No harm in that, I suppose." Remus forced a smile and the tension around the table ebbed. Peter grinned like an idiot, while James went back to massaging his neck.
"Empty out your pockets, lads," Sirius directed, and winked at Remus as the others dredged up their remaining money.
James produced a handful of Knuts. Peter thrust a hand into his pocket and fumbled his fingers over the two remaining Sickles there. The coins clinked against another metal object.
"Whatcha got in there, Peter? Sounds like a couple Galleons, at least." Sirius smirked and held out an expectant palm.
"No. Not--not at all," stammered Peter, his fingers becoming entangled in cloth momentarily. He extracted the two silver coins and dropped them on the table, then stuck his hand back into his pocket, feeling for the other metal object, the one he'd been fingering all night.
"Aw, come on. That's it?" Sirius eyed Peter suspiciously. "Surely an up-and-coming lawyer such as yourself can kick in a bit more?"
"Just a clerk, you know." Peter laughed faintly. As Sirius well knew, a junior clerk, even at the prestigious firm of Fishbone, Mullion, and Pettigrew, didn't earn much. It took ages to advance. His father, who'd gotten him the job, was only a senior associate. You had to be dead to be made partner, as the ghost of his great-grandfather, Pontius Pettigrew, explained to him regularly.
"We'll start you off in D&B," the elder Mr. Pettigrew had pronounced on Peter's first day at Fishbone, Mullion and Pettigrew. "You'll learn the ropes there, my boy. Best place for you."
D&B. You could call it "Deeds & Bequests" or "Dead & Buried." Take your pick. The latter was what the other two clerks, Eurydice Featherfoil and Persephone Toadflax, called their little kingdom, which consisted of the cavernous clerks' room, the cramped office of the head of department and a dungeon-like vault in the basement.
Peter's greatest fear had been that the Deeds and Bequests department would turn out to be utterly and mind-numbingly boring. However, only the Litigation Department had more drama, more tears, more screaming, than D&B. After the first week, boring would have been a blessed relief.
He worked under Mr. Bartelby, the stony-faced head of department, as did the other clerks. With all the work they had, they could have used two more clerks, but none of them ever complained because that brought up the specter of the previous clerk, young Bartelby, who had left the department shortly before Peter joined. "Left the department" was the way that Eurydice would say it, always in hushed tones and never in the presence of Mr. Bartelby.
The blunt truth--which took Peter a week to figure out when he'd first started there--was that Mr. Bartelby's son had been killed, caught up in the incident at the Prewitt School in which the shadowy supporters of You-Know-Who had attacked a primary school that freely admitted Muggle-born children. Nine witches and wizards had died, some of them bystanders like young Bartelby who had fought to rescue the children and keep the Death Eaters from setting fire to the entire building. It was a shame, but it only served to point up the folly of getting involved with powers greater than yourself. That should be left to those foolhardy enough to work for the Ministry.
If Mr. Bartelby had been affected by his son's death, he never showed it. But Peter knew--as a result of the after-hours snooping by a certain rat--that their head of department kept a bottle of Firewhisky in his desk and that sometimes at the end of the day he locked his office door, poured himself a large glass from the secret bottle and wept. Peter found it repulsive, and he never told anyone else what he'd seen.
D&B was, therefore, at least one clerk short. In addition to the piles of work they already had, a steady stream of witches and wizards came into the office to change their wills or to make new ones. There were days when Peter wished that he had a bottle in his desk too, days when the pain and suffering of their clients grew to be so much that all he wanted was to hide in some deep, dark place and sleep for a week, days when the sound of Mr. Bartelby's voice calling, "Pettigrew, step into my office," was enough to make his head explode.
He wondered if the rest of his life would be more of the same: ten hours a day with only a clerk's salary to show for it at the end of the week. When he wasn't at work, his main occupation seemed to be escaping from work. At school, he hadn't thought much about what he wanted to be "when he grew up". If he thought about it at all, he supposed that he wanted the sort of comfortable life that his parents had without having a clue as to how or why.
His school friends didn't have a clue either, at least as far as Peter could tell. James single-mindedly applied himself to his job at the Ministry and seemed determined to marry his Muggle-born girlfriend.
Remus, poor sod, didn't seem as if he'd ever find a job. Maybe Peter should have tried to get him a position at the law firm--Remus was certainly capable of clerking and much more--but he cringed at the thought of anyone finding out that he, Peter, knew a werewolf. Of course, Remus wouldn't want to put him in such an awkward situation, so Peter never brought it up.
Sirius wanted more than anything to be an Auror, but the Ministry had turned down his application. He grumbled about it mightily and spent his days as a hired bodyguard for the rich and terrified, while his nights were devoted to the girlfriend-of-the-week or one-night stands--at least to hear him tell it. Peter wasn't usually invited on Sirius's pub-crawling escapades, so he couldn't tell if those long, frequently bawdy tales were entirely true.
"Do I have to turn your pockets out myself, Peter? If you're holding out on us--"
"No, Sirius, I told you, I'm broke. If I could, you know, I…"
Sirius shot Peter a dark and disbelieving look and then added his own contribution. "Hrmph. Enough for two pints. Have to do," he said as he counted up the small pile of change. "We can all share."
"I'll just go up to the bar, then," Remus mumbled. He scooped up the coins and stood before anyone else could volunteer.
James cocked his head slightly (as much as he could manage without bringing on further agony) and pushed his glasses back up his nose. He watched Remus's thin frame weave through the crowd, until finally swallowed by the crush of people at the bar. It hurt to do so. Everything hurt.
He had thought this getting married business would be easy. After all, he and Lily were in love and wanted to be together. That should be simple, right?
Lily had suggested a wedding in the wizarding tradition, which had come as a great relief to James who hadn't looked forward to dressing in odd, formal Muggle clothing for his own wedding (not that dress robes were that much more comfortable). Of her relatives, only her parents and her sister were to attend the wedding. Her parents had loved the idea, but Petunia had thrown a fit. She usually did that.
All nice and simple.
Except that Lily's parents had then insisted on throwing a series of parties for all the Muggle relatives who wouldn't be attending the wedding.
Thus James, dressed in uncomfortable and unfamiliar clothing, had endured several weeks of tea parties and sherry parties and garden parties that featured an endless stream of elderly great-aunts and bored-looking cousins. Perched on fragile furniture with a tea cup balanced in his lap, he had smiled and attempted conversation with the hard-of-hearing relations while his shoulders had become tenser and tenser and that spot in the center of his back, right below his neck, had begun to burn as if someone had stuck a hot poker under his skin. Sirius had offered to perform a Muscle Melting Charm, but he wasn't about to let Sirius cast any spells on him right before the wedding as there was no room for an "accidental" application of the wrong charm.
"Sirius. go a bit easier on Remus, will you?" James wrenched his head away from the scene at the bar to look his friend in the eye. "This walking tour thingy of his…it's not entirely by choice. He doesn't like to talk about it, but he hasn't had any luck finding a job."
"Yeah, I know," Sirius sighed and toyed with James's beer glass. James didn't seem to care as he'd gone back to rubbing his neck. Sirius stared into the beer, mechanically sloshing the amber liquid back and forth.
"I've made enquiries at the Ministry," James said after a long pause, "but they're so bloody prejudiced there."
"And he's good--not that it would matter to some of those stupid buggers." More beer sloshed as Sirius tapped the glass on the table. "Sorry, James, I'm not counting you as one of that lot."
"I know…. He got top marks on his O.W.L.s, and if he'd taken the N.E.W.T.s--"
"--didn't see the point, did he? We need all the good wizards we can get, if Volde--" Peter winced and then wagged his hands in tiny, frantic motions. "--if You-Know-Who is ever to be put down. Shit, and they're saying Crouch is going to be the next Minister of Magic. That guy wouldn't even take a piss without reading the rulebook first."
"Dumbledore's been asking around, too." James lowered his voice. Things had gotten so openly partisan lately that merely uttering the name of the only wizard said to be feared by Voldemort could be dangerous. "Something will turn up. I'm sure of it."
"You're more optimistic than I am," Sirius snorted, then took a large swig of the only remaining beer at the table. "Moony's one of the best of our year and if those fucking bastards," he slammed down the half-empty glass for emphasis, sending a fountain of beer shooting out the top, "can't see it, then--"
"Hullo, Moony. Back so soon?"
"Perhaps I shall open a pub." Remus smiled as he set down the full pints, adroitly avoiding the puddle of beer in front of Sirius. "I'll need a bouncer, though, some great brute who can keep out the riff-raff, stop bar fights, that sort of thing. Know anyone like that?"
"The 'Wolf and Hound', right?" Sirius laughed. He waved his wand lazily at the spilt beer and magicked it out of existence before continuing, "Sounds like fun. Should be a great way to meet girls."
"Better than having to cozy up to goblins and trolls," Remus said, and took drink of one of their communal pints. "That last one must have weighed at least twenty stone."
"What?" Sirius looked baffled and irritated as he grabbed the pint away from Remus.
"The bouncer in that last club, er, what was it called? Club Mew Mew?" James grunted whilst stretching his neck from side to side.
"Oh, right," Peter giggled. "He must have stood a head taller than Sirius."
"And he was--argh!" cried James, as his neck cracked loudly. "Um, rather trollish, don't you think?"
"Just an ordinary-sized bloke," Sirius said while trying to chase away the yawn that had been plaguing him all night. "He got the drop on me. That's all."
When one of your best friends got married, of course you had to do something. As Best Man, Sirius felt responsible for seeing that they (and especially James) had a good time. Not that this should have been a chore for Sirius, who liked nothing more than to put on Muggle clothing, roar down country lanes on his big black motorcycle and find pubs where he'd either end up picking up a girl or picking a fight--sometimes both. This expedition was not turning out as well as expected, however.
Disastrous was more like it.
Fenton's House of Mirth, the comedy club in Diagon Alley, had been a big bust. The jokes were all stale, probably because the comedians could never be sure if there were Death Eaters or Aurors in the audience. Jokes about current events were therefore avoided, leaving the comedians to fall back on "Did you hear the one about the wizard…" Sirius tried to liven things up by shouting dirty limericks (he knew hundreds) from their table in the back.
That was the first club that had thrown them out.
After that, Sirius had hit upon a tour of Muggle clubs in Soho. There had been a few bumps along that road, too, particularly after their Muggle money had run out and Sirius had proposed sneaking into the last place under James's invisibility cloak.
"The night's not over yet." Sirius took a long drink of their last pint. The yawn, that miserable little reminder of sleep deprivation, twitched at the corners of his mouth, waiting to leap out and hog-tie his brain.
"We're out of money," Remus reminded him.
"How was I to know that they'd make us buy so many of those bloody weak drinks?"
"Never been before, Sirius? Come now, I thought you'd been everywhere," James scolded.
"Er, I'm working my way through London… Just hadn't got to those particular places yet."
"Mmmm. P'raps I'm out of line here," Remus said in a decidedly non-conciliatory tone, "but I'd like to point out that the money would have lasted longer if you hadn't kept stuffing pound notes into the dancers', er, whatever."
"It was bloody fun!" Sirius roared back and jabbed a finger at Remus. "I'd like to point out to you, that you never have any bloody fun!"
Peter sucked in his breath sharply and fell back on making little clucking noises. James eyed both Sirius and Remus severely, then said, "Sirius, I appreciate your efforts, but… It may be time to call it a night. How long has it been since you've slept? Two days? Three days?"
"Damned security," Sirius grumbled as he folded his arms and sat back roughly in his chair. "Had to get through the damned security arrangements. Not that you were much help, James, off to all those bleeding tea parties and leaving me to deal with that paranoid bastard. Whose idea was it to have Moody in charge of security for the wedding?"
"You know as well as I do that, considering all the witches and wizards that are coming, there need to be…precautions taken." James drew a long breath between clenched teeth and rubbed his neck. "If I could have been there to help… but, er, it was important to Lily and all that."
"Well, I could have helped," Peter squeaked. "Really, if you need more help, then I--and what security arrangements are we talking about exactly?"
"But Moody…" began Sirius, ignoring Peter bouncing in his chair. The yawn finally got the better of him, however, and forced his face into a long spasm that only served to underscore how tired he was and how ready for more partying he wasn't.
It wasn't unusual to find Sirius Black dressed in Muggle clothing and having a beer in a Muggle pub, but the nearly full glass, that was unusual, and sitting alone at a table near the door, that was unusual. Of course, the person who'd arranged to meet him here at the Druid's Folly was rather unusual, too. And he was late.
Sirius toyed with his pint. In last ten minutes, the pub had filled with a noisy evening crowd, standing elbow-to-elbow at the bar and occupying the ten or twelve tables in the public room. Behind the bar a large sign read, "Guinness is good for you", a sentiment that Sirius heartily agreed with as he sipped his own pint of Guinness. He felt out of place here, but not because he didn't know anyone. On any other night, given any other excuse to visit a pub, that wouldn't be a problem. He'd be up at the bar or playing darts or chatting up a girl. But tonight he wasn't supposed to get distracted. He was supposed to meet someone--who was late.
The door opened and Sirius got another soggy wave of the April damp. Although there was a fire burning across the room, from his seat next to the door he didn't share in the warmth. After determining that the newcomer, a skinny bloke who looked barely old enough to drink legally, wasn't the one, he pulled the collar of his jacket up to his chin and looked darkly around the room. He didn't think he needed help with the wedding arrangements, but a word in James's ear from Dumbledore had sealed his fate, pushed him into this uncomfortable corner. He felt trapped in the way he'd been sixth year, when Snape and his gang had locked him in the second floor bathroom with a hornets' nest that they'd managed to smuggle into school.
Maybe he's already here, just hiding somewhere, Sirius thought. From what he knew about this fellow, the one who was already--he checked his watch--twelve minutes late, he was cautious, bordering on paranoid.
A disguise? Not many witches or wizards were comfortable mixing with Muggles. Sirius prided himself on his abilities in that regard. An Auror, one of the top Aurors at the Ministry by all accounts, could pull it off. There weren't any other solitary drinkers like himself, though; everyone in the mixed crowd of farmers and the more well dressed sort seemed to belong, at least to watch them laugh and talk with one another.
The hubbub made him itch to dive in. He took a drink instead. Then another. Fifteen minutes late.
The girls at the next table seemed authentic, he decided after he set down his half-empty glass. The three of them, all wearing rather short skirts, whispered and sniggered amongst themselves. Sirius appraised their bare legs. Unless Polyjuice Potion were involved, these too were genuine. One of them, a blonde wearing purple lipstick, caught his eye. He knew that look. He stared back at her and the chase was on.
Except Sirius couldn't--not tonight. He was waiting for the bloody Auror who was seventeen bloody minutes late.
He concentrated on the dart players across the room, trying to follow the game and wishing he could join in. The next time he looked at the table next to his, Purple Lipstick's friends were getting up, making giggly comments about powdering their noses. Then she was alone, and she gave him that look.
A word or two won't do any harm, Sirius thought as he got up. He might be back at this pub a few times before the wedding and it was always good to know the locals, especially the female locals.
"Not from around here, are you?" She looked up at him from underneath heavily made-up eyelashes.
"Stopped by for a drink...on my way to see my cousin in, er, Froxfield."
"You got a car, then?"
"Motorbike." Sirius jammed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and shrugged, as if it were no big deal.
"I've always wanted to ride a motorbike, but me dad thinks they're too dangerous." She twirled a strand of hair in her fingers while looking him up and down carefully. "What's your name, then? I'm Annie."
"Well, Sid," she began with a giggle, but changed her mind and went on in a conspiratorial tone, "I hope that bloke over there is a friend of yours, or else he might nick your pint." She gave a suggestive look toward something or someone behind him and whispered, "He doesn't look too friendly to me."
"Huh?" Sirius turned around in confusion and there, sitting at the table next to the door, twenty minutes late, was Alastor Moody.
"Shit," Sirius muttered to himself. He flashed her a brief smile. "Better see what this bloke wants with my pint. Yeah, maybe I'll see you later."
There was only one chair at the table next to the door and it was now occupied. With no place to sit, Sirius looked down at the man.
Moody sat, back to the wall, his legs jutting out in such a way that anyone coming near would have to give him a wide berth. He wore muddy boots and above them, a pair of mud-splattered trousers. His wild, dark hair was streaked with gray and his face had the weather-beaten appearance of a farmer who spent a lot of time out of doors; yet a closer look at the leathery skin tattooed with oddly shaped scars didn't quite fit with that vocation, unless the farmer frequently got tangled in the blades of his thresher or had been mauled by the swine more than once.
"And you've got bollocks for brains," Moody replied softly with a distinct Northern accent. He yanked a chair away from a nearby table, glaring at the table's occupants who had a few choice words for him, and motioned Sirius to sit. "You'd do well to keep away from the skirts, laddie."
Sirius had the urge to yell something back at him, famous Auror or not, but this wouldn't get them off to a good start, so he reached for his glass and took a drink instead.
"Just checking out the locals, you know." He set the empty glass down with a challenging thunk. "No harm in that, is there?"
Moody narrowed his beady eyes thoughtfully. "'Harm? I'd say it's dangerous to do your thinking with what's in your trousers instead of what's in your head."
Sirius opened his mouth to speak, but couldn't. The room grew dim and spun around him as if he were being sucked into a whirlpool of blacker-than-night nothingness. His head hit the table. Somewhere far away, someone laughed.
Damp, wet, dark. And still spinning. Sirius took a deep breath, trying to find order in the chaos inside his head, and then opened his eyes. He lay outside under a cloudy night sky. The ground beneath him was wet and squishy. His jeans were soaked.
He groaned, hands clutching his head, and then sat up. How long had be been lying there? His motorbike, seemingly unharmed, stood nearby in front of a dark wall, faintly illuminated by a distant source behind him. Not a wall, a hedge. This was the field where he'd left the bike after casting a Muggle-repelling charm as well as several spells meant to deter wizards.
At least it wasn't raining anymore.
Sirius got to his feet and turned around cautiously. He wasn't alone. Light from the village formed a halo behind Moody so that his face was in shadow. Never mind the face. Even without being able to see the expression, Sirius knew that it wasn't a cheerful grin.
"Never turn your back on a drink, lad, else someone'll put something far worse than a sleeping potion in your pint. Constant vigilance." Moody took a silver flask from inside his jacket and raised it in salute before taking a swig.
Bloody hell. Not off to a very good start, are we? Sirius thought as he brushed grass and mud from his jacket. His breath hovered in front of his face, diamond-like drops condensing in the damp, chilly air.
Moody capped the flask and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He put the flask back in his jacket and said in a deep, rumbling voice, "Ah, that's better. Now, where were we? Yes... Dumbledore, he asks me to help with Potter's wedding. Concerned about the security, he is, about the safety of one hundred and thirty-seven guests, sitting ducks for some nasty business if things are not…secure. And how could Volemort resist, when Potter and Evans want to get married in the middle of a bleeding sheep field at noon on the summer solstice?"
Sirius shrugged. All this was obvious.
"Potter says his best man's going to see to the security, like it was some little party thrown by overeager students in their common room. Now, I told Dumbledore that if Potter wants to get himself and a few close friends cursed to pieces, that's fine by me. But there's a lot more at stake here, isn't there?"
The wedding of the decade, James liked to call it with his usual cheeky pride. And James had a right to be proud. Lily was more than a "good catch", as the Hogwarts gossips had labeled her after the engagement had been made public (though not within earshot of Lily or James). Lily was what James needed. Sirius couldn't come up with a better way to express it because he didn't understand all that passed between those two. He knew James; until recently, he would have said that he knew James better than anyone on earth. And that meant that he knew the effect that Lily had on James; he could feel it at a gut level every time he saw them together, even if he didn't understand it.
There was a lot at stake, not only James's happiness, but also the spirit of the entire wizarding world, in a way. In these dark times when people didn't go out much, didn't gather together in large numbers for fear of attack, holding an open celebration like this was blatant defiance of Lord Voldemort 's campaign to terrorize and divide the magical community. If they pulled it off, the wedding would stand out like a blazing torch that refused to be extinguished.
"Who's coming to this thing, eh?" Moody continued. "Five Aurors, the heads of three departments at the Ministry and most of the Hogwarts teaching staff. Quite a prize for Lord Voldemort, I'd say."
"Well, of--" Sirius stopped, suddenly irritated for sounding so conciliatory. All right, that was the politically acceptable thing to do, but he was couldn't, or wouldn't. He crossed his arms stiffly and began again. "Look, if you don't want to do this, it's fine with me. The location is a secret. And as for security, James and I can handle--"
"Handle what?" Moody snorted. He walked slowly around Sirius. "You couldn't even meet me in a Muggle pub without getting yourself all bollixed up. Do you know how many ways you could have been ambushed tonight by a clever wizard with a mind for mischief? And as for keeping it secret, well I don't put much stock in the secrets that people keep. Sooner or later, someone somewhere will let something slip."
Sirius continued to glare at him, angrier and angrier, but afraid to speak for what he might say, for what trouble he might cause for himself as well as for James.
"Good at security, are you? Let's have a look at this motorbike." Moody reached into his shirt pocket. He pulled out a wad of leather and unwrapped it to reveal a large glass eye that rolled around in his open palm, quivering curiously. He pointed at the bike and stared down at the eye, concentrating on something that Sirius couldn't see.
"Ah, Muggle-repelling charm, of course. Easy to break," Moody muttered. Without taking his gaze away from the queer third eye, he produced a wand from somewhere. There was a swish in the air, red sparks flew out of the wand and the motorbike glowed faintly for an instant. "Let's see… What else? A few other spells besides. Hmmm. That one… yes, certainly decent, well executed, not so easy to break."
Sirius shifted his feet uncomfortably. The muddy field was slowly swallowing his boots. He didn't like the game this Auror was playing, didn't like being dressed down as if he were a talentless first year back at school.
Moody, meanwhile, had put away his magical eye and was circling the motorbike with his wand held stiffly out. The bike's polished black metal winked at Sirius as the other wizard's shadow played across the chrome and steel body. Sirius stepped closer, trying to catch the words of muttered incantations. Moody paid no attention to him, too intent on spell breaking.
Red, orange, and blue sparks shot from the wand, but these fizzled and died before reaching the bike. Moody lowered his wand and stepped back, arms folded.
Not as easy as you thought, eh? Sirius smirked and crossed his arms, unconsciously echoing the Auror's stance.
For a moment, the muddy field was silent as both men contemplated the large black motorbike glowing faintly from the distant lights, the prize in an undeclared war that had sprung up between the two of them as naturally as ice on the surface of a pond in winter.
Moody grunted and his head was suddenly wreathed in a luminous cloud of foggy breath. He nodded to himself, raised the wand and murmured one final incantation. This time no sparks flew, but the surface of the motorbike, from handlebars to tailpipe, glowed white for a few seconds. There was crackling in the air as of distant fireworks, followed by a single Pop!
"Decent piece of spell work, that." Moody broke the silence after he lowered his wand. He nodded to Sirius, and then put the wand away. "Combining an amnesia spell with hexes for boils, nausea and blindness was nice, very nice. Not many wizards could get past all of that."
Sirius didn't reply. His arms had remained tightly folded across his chest throughout Moody's demonstration of spell-breaking technique.
Moody reached out to pat the motorbike and said, "Now, lad, the--" He gave a strangled cry, his hand convulsively clutching one of the handlebars. He seemed stuck.
Sirius paid scant attention to Moody himself, but took one long stride toward the bike and swung his leg as if to kick the engine. Instead of hitting the bike, however, he hooked his foot under a small loop of wire and tugged.
In an instant, Moody stopped struggling. He jerked his hand away from the motorbike so violently that he fell backward.
"You might have mentioned that last spell," Moody growled up at Sirius from a muddy spot on the ground.
"Not a spell." Sirius extended a hand and helped the other man to his feet.
"What the hell was it, then?" Moody flexed the fingers of one hand, which were moving in a rather random spasmodic dance.
"Extra battery wired to the…that is, electricity. It's a Muggle sort of thing," Sirius finished quickly. While he was proud of his cleverness, the scowl on Moody's face was turning nasty. And the man was legendary for his nastiness. They were supposed to work together on security for the wedding, so Sirius had better not push any further.
"Is that so? I want to hear more about this." Moody gave a final shake to the affected hand and seemed satisfied with it. With a sharp laugh, he slapped Sirius on the back and said, "We've got some work to do, laddie."
Sirius fought off another yawn and started again, "Security's all done now, Peter. Nothing's going to go wrong, so we can concentrate on the matter at hand. Hmmm. D'you think you could get some cash from the Night Demon at Gringotts?"
"Oh, er, I don't…" Peter stammered. Gringotts' Night Demon would dispense a modest amount from your account, after asking a series of long and complicated questions. But, there was always the danger that it wouldn't feel like giving you the money in the end and would throw a hex at you instead. Tricky business, even when sober.
"Yeah, there's always Seven Shoe Alley, if we had a few Galleons." Sirius was not one to give up easily.
"A few hundred is more like it," James said, his face becoming flushed. "The girls there don't just dance on your table for a few notes and a drink, do they? I mean, that's a whole different--"
"Aw, don't you want to find out? You're about to get married, turn into a sodding paragon of respectability." Sirius looked down his nose at James with mock primness and then laughed. "Don't give me that look; I know you. Once upon a time, you were willing to take chances for a bit of fun. Remember the time you dared me to run stark naked through the--"
"--and we both got detentions for it! But the looks on their faces were worth it, eh?" James chuckled at the memory, then sighed, "Since we don't have any money, it's all rather academic at this point. Why don't we just call it a night? We could all use some sleep."
Remus nodded and shifted in his chair, as if to rise, while Sirius and James locked eyes. Peter knew that stare well, knew that whether they carried on or not would be determined by who broke first. James and Sirius, it always came down to those two. Always had, he corrected himself.
Peter's hand twitched in his pocket yet again to make sure that the lump of metal there had not escaped by accident--his last hope, if only he had the courage to use it. And, he didn't want to use it. No, there'd be hell to pay when Father found out. But the alternative was far, far worse.
Author's Note: I consider myself to be incredibly lucky to have so many excellent beta-readers, people who are willing to comment and critique on work in progress as well as put up with my insecure whining about how I'll never finish it. Many, many thanks to Aurinia, Dave, Fiat Incantatum, Haggridd, Hyphen, Icarus, Katia, Linda, Loup Noir, Matt Edwards, and Soz. You guys are the best!
Anyone familiar with the story will notice that is a revised version of Stag Night. I am deeply grateful to Haggridd and Icarus for prodding me to revise this. I think the story has improved, but you shall be the judge of that.
Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
~ CLS (2 October 2002; Revised 8 July 2003).