The morning dawned bright and clear, the skies quite rained out and the clouds scudding away to the west. Sirius breakfasted well on rats before he left the barn – he noted rather humourlessly that he now had quite a taste for them – and set off in the early morning sunlight. The rough seeded grass he pressed through was drenched with last night's rain and it clung to his long dark fur. The wet leaves and grass sparkled in the pale light, and the smell of soaked earth rose to Sirius' nostrils. He leaped over a small stream and began to bound up the stony heel of the mountain, filled with new energy. Good, plump rats certainly appeared to contain plenty of nutrients for a hungry dog.
Sirius' mind was still buzzing, and even exhaustingly active. After he had dredged up one long-lost memory he felt physically fatigued, yet he did not try to prevent this. Along with the strain of remembering came an ever-growing sense of completeness, as though he were a shattered jigsaw puzzle being pieced together with dizzying rapidity once more.
He found he had not forgotten the night they had become Animagi, especially the look on Moony's face when he realised what his friends had done for him – he remembered the celebrations after Gryffindor had won the Quidditch Cup three years running – he recalled every detail of the wonderful weeks when he finally left home, to spend a glorious summer of freedom with James and the Potters. And one chilly evening nearly a week after the night he had spent in the barn, Sirius pulled a small, rather odd memory from the corner of his mind. It was about Peter. Not Wormtail. Peter Pettigrew...
Sirius had generally found Peter a bore from the moment they had met. He put up with the blonde-haired kid because he liked Remus, and Peter was Remus' friend. Sirius had an air of casual indifference towards Peter Pettigrew, returning the younger boy's enthusiastic greetings with a nod, or a bored greeting if he was in a good mood – silence, if he were not. He had laughed at Peter on the night they became Animagi; a rat, while the rest of them were such big, sleek, powerful animals had seemed such an excellent joke. It was he who had thought up the brilliantly witty (or so he thought) nickname, Wormtail. He had allowed Peter to tag along after him, sometimes enjoying the kid's awe of him, the unrestrained admiration. But more often than not, Peter's inability to handle often even the simplest of spells simply got on Sirius' nerves. When he and James could employ almost every spell he had ever learnt with ease, it was easy to laugh at blundering, struggling Wormy...
It happened one day just after their OWLs. The exams were over and the fifth years had two glorious weeks of sunshine and freedom before going home for the holidays, and Sirius was waiting to make his move. He had had his eye on her for a while now – a tall Ravenclaw with hazel curls and dark eyes. The Gryffindors and the Ravenclaws took Herbology and Astronomy together, but for half a year Sirius had tried unsuccessfully to catch her eye. He had an irritable feeling that she was just playing hard to get, and this only strengthened his resolve.
It was a blazingly hot day, and Sirius was lounging by the side of the lake in the company of James and Moony and Peter. He half closed his eyes and chipped into the conversation every now and then so that the others wouldn't assume he was asleep (falling asleep in the middle of the day was far too dangerous – last time James had painted his ears, nose and eyebrows with Zonko's face paint, which even Madame Pomfrey had been unable to remove). But Sirius wasn't really concentrating on the conversation. Through his half-lowered eyelids he observed the hazel-haired girl sitting quietly on the other side of the lake – alone, reading, and absent-mindedly stroking one of the tentacles of the Giant Squid, which lazed in the shallow water near to her apparently enjoying the attention.
'It's like an oven out here,' James complained, suddenly pulling off his socks and throwing them aside. 'I'm going for a dip, coming?'
'It's deep in there,' Peter said with a slight nervous jump in his voice, and he edged away from the water. James rolled his eyes and looked at Sirius and Remus.
'Not today,' said Remus, as he kicked James' damp sock off his foot.
'Aw, come on, Moony, no one's here to see,' said James. They all knew Moony's self-consciousness concerning the large, ragged crescent-shaped scar etched into his side. But Remus shook his head stubbornly, and James shrugged.
'Just you and me then, Si—hey, Padfoot, where're you going?'
'I'll join you later,' yelled Sirius, as he walked away. 'Won't be a second.'
The hazel-haired girl across the lake had absent-mindedly pushed back her long curls with a hand still soaking wet from the lake water, and the bright sunlight flashed gold where it caught the wet locks. Sirius had finally snapped. The girl looked up as he approached, and smiled unsurely at him.
'All right, Marlene? Good book?' asked Sirius brightly, flopping down beside her.
The Ravenclaw looked slightly taken aback, and visibly leaned away as she answered primly, 'Yes, not bad, Sirius.'
Sirius felt rather offended. Did he smell bad, or something? He decided to turn on the charm. It rarely failed.
'Excellent,' he said, flashing her a smile. 'See you've made friends with the Giant Squits, I mean,' he corrected himself, 'Squid.'
Marlene didn't smile at his admittedly lame joke, and Sirius coughed, beginning to feel uncomfortable.
'Nice day,' he said, gesturing vaguely at the sky.
'Yes,' Marlene agreed. 'It is.'
There was a pause.
'You know,' Sirius said desperately, 'the Squid's pretty boring, isn't he? We should liven it up a bit.'
'Liven – how?' said Marlene in alarm, but Sirius had already whipped out his wand in inspiration.
'Colores morphi!' he yelled.
In an instant, the Squid's creamily translucent tentacles turned electric blue, then orange, sunshine yellow, baby pink, the colours rolling in liquid waves across the smooth skin. The waters heaved and they both leaped backwards as the Squid reared its giant head out of the lake. The sea-creature looked in evident astonishment at its rainbow-coloured appendages, then blinked its great eyes, pools of inky darkness, at them in bewildered hurt. Sirius grinned as Marlene finally chuckled, then broke out into hearty laughter.
'Oh, it looks so confused!' she giggled. The Squid sank beneath the surface, evidently offended, and they watched it shoot away, technicolour tentacles trailing.
'So, Marlene,' said Sirius casually, 'how do you fancy, you know – going to Hogsmeade together sometime? There's this great restaurant, the Jobberknoll's Nest, we could –'
But Marlene cut him off, the smile vanishing from her face in an instant. 'I'm sorry, Sirius,' she said. 'I thought when you came over you might be thinking – I mean – look, I think you're a good guy, you're funny – sometimes – and you, you are cool and everything' – she was stumbling over her words at this point, and a deep flush was rising in her cheeks – 'but I can't, I can't go out with you.'
There was another, very awkward pause.
'Why not?' asked Sirius finally. He turned away, pretending to look unconcerned, but he could feeling his own cheeks turning hot.
Marlene looked across the lake, scratching her ear in embarrassment. 'Well, you see, I'm - I'm already seeing somebody.'
'Oh,' said Sirius. Another pause. 'Oh.'
And that had been the end of it, for a few days at least. Marlene had refused to disclose the name of this secret suitor, and Sirius had left her abruptly. He returned to the Marauders with thunder in his face and for once they did not rib him – James was going through enough with Lily not to find others' unsuccessful love-lives amusing, and Remus and Peter kept pretty quiet, perhaps not wanting to evoke a bitter tirade against womankind in general. Sirius went to bed that night still smarting from the rejection.
It was only two days later when it happened. It was a Tuesday evening, James was in detention, Moony insisted on writing his Potions essay in silence, and Peter had disappeared somewhere or other – Sirius wasn't really interested in Wormy's exploits. He sat in a chair by the fire, drumming his fingers in boredom. Finally, unable to take the tedium, he rose. James was restacking dozens of Charms books on shelves for Flitwick – by hand – as a punishment for getting overexcited in that day's Summoning lesson and yanking the whole lot onto the floor. But Flitwick was soft, and Sirius guessed that James would be let out early. He left the Common Room and headed towards the Charms classroom.
He reached the third floor corridor, when two muffled but unmistakably familiar voice reached his ears. Sirius halted in astonishment. A conversation was going on behind the door of an empty classroom. Sirius quickly entered the room next to it – a disused store cupboard – pressed his ear against the cold stone wall and listened. They were not troubling to keep their voices low.
'But I – I thought you –' Marlene's voice was tremulous.
'Well,' said Peter, and coughed. 'I didn't mean to make you think...'
There was a short silence, then the sound of footsteps – then the slamming of a door. Sirius listened till the footsteps had faded, then emerged from his hiding place.
He flung open the door of the classroom and stared down at Peter's astonished face. Peter was sat upon a table, and jumped back at the thunderous look on Sirius' face.
'You?' said Sirius, accusing and softly furious. 'You were with Marlene – and you what, forgot to even mention it to us or something?'
'No!' said Peter, his voice cracking. The younger boy was flushed and his eyes were faintly puffy – and troubled. 'We – we'd only been together a few days, we sort of didn't tell anyone because it was, you know, nice to have secret...' he trailed off, swallowing.
But Sirius could tell there was far more to it than this, and asked brusquely, 'So what was all that about, you're having a little lovers' tiff or something?' He gestured at the doorway through which Marlene had stormed.
Peter was silent for a moment, then suddenly raised his eyes defiantly to Sirius' own. 'No,' he repeated shortly. 'That was me breaking it off with Marlene, actually. And if you want to know – I did it for you, Padfoot, so you might stop glaring at me like that.' His voice had grown stronger and his small, chubby chin was set.
Sirius' next furious sentence was lost in his throat. He could only stare at Peter wordlessly. Then he dropped down on the table next to him.
'Let me get this straight,' he said. 'You had just got together with Marlene, then you found out I liked her too – so you dumped her so she would be free?'
'Well,' said Sirius, whose mind had started to whirl blankly. 'That was – really decent of you Peter,' he blundered finally. 'But I can't believe you would –'
'It just didn't seem right,' said Peter unhappily. 'That I should be with her and you left wanting.'
Nearly fifteen years later, Sirius the dog stopped in his tracks. Marlene had gone out with him, in the end, for perhaps four or five months. But it never really worked – Sirius had always been too conscious of Peter's sacrifice to enter wholly into the relationship. Yet once they had broken it off, Peter had never tried to approach Marlene again.
Sirius gazed up at the guiding North Star, then turned away. It shone too brightly and he couldn't look at it any more. Padfoot flopped down on the ground, head in his paws, suddenly too exhausted to run any further. He wished he had not recalled that story. For the first time since he had cornered Wormtail in that dingy side street, before the street had blown up and Sirius' world with it, Sirius realised fully what he was heading northwards to do.
He was going north to murder his old friend.
For a long time, Sirius lay there in the twilight, looking with unseeing eyes at the glimmering evening dew in the grass. The scents of the dying summer day drifted through the air and Sirius felt suddenly very old; far older than his thirty-two years. Peter was surely only a few miles away, and now Sirius wished he were tens of thousands, so that the space between them might run deeper than the old grieving fury buried in his heart.
Rising in a crooked silhouette a few yards from where Sirius lay, was a dying tree, whose branches curled up to the darkening sky like long accusing fingers. Strangely similar to a human hand - oh, Merlin. Dogs cannot shed a tear for grief or loneliness, but as the twisted shape of the tree slowly made its impression upon Sirius' exhausted consciousness, he realised he was crying inside. Over and again, over the long years in Azkaban, he had seen that human hand - the hand of his friend - which reached up to the sky like a drowning man's. James had fallen under the blasted doorway, and his wand arm stretched upwards after death in futile defence. It had led Sirius' to the place where his friend lay, pale and lifeless under the rubble.
Slowly, painfully, Sirius rose from the grass, long dark fur glinting with dew, and limped forward – that bruised paw had never had a chance to heal – and his pale eyes gleamed. He had loved Peter Pettigrew as a brother, but his old friend had died a long time ago; from the moment he had pledged allegiance to Lord Voldemort. When the darkness, which was taking over in everywhere but the strongest hearts, had finally won...
'I'm not going to kill Peter,' thought Sirius, and gradually his strides lengthened.
'It's not Peter I'm after at all,' he thought again, more fiercely this time. 'I'm going to kill Wormtail, I'm going to kill the rat who killed James, who murdered Lily, who destroyed everything that was good and perfect...who killed, who killed...'
Sirius' thoughts ran in circles, but his body ran straight as an arrow. From that moment on his bounding footsteps never faltered. For despite himself, his memories were breaking into more recent times – Sirius could not hold it back any more – he remembered over again with sickening clarity the night that Lily and James had been murdered. He remembered the dizzying panic when he arrived at Wormtail's empty home, the blank horror when he saw the crumbled ruins in Godric's Hollow, the draining weakness that had brought him crashing to his knees when he found Lily – the shaking, sobbing, disbelieving wreck he had become when he found James lying beneath that paint-blistered doorframe...
Disregarding the knowledge that Dementors could be within a mile of him and able to hear, Padfoot raised his head as he ran, and howled long and hard, with all the strength in his body. Muggle villagers in the deeps of Scotland heard him and looked out of their windows into the impenetrable dark, thinking of wolves and listening fearfully to the raw howls of pain and fury.
And at last, skirting round a great, looming peak and through a long, dark mountain pass – it lay before him in shimmering night time splendour. Sirius gazed through his pale dog's eyes at Hogwarts castle, dark and tall against the star-strewn sky. The windows were lit and the whole thing cast a rippling reflection in the black glassiness of the Hogwarts Lake. It was easy to slip past the dark-robed Dementors, who turned at his elusive presence, and sucked the air with long, rattling breaths. The thing they sensed was gone before they knew it. The dog headed for the depths of the Forbidden Forest, and midway there turned his head upwards again to look at the ancient castle, School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
The rat was in there, he could sense it, and the dog bared his sharp wolfish teeth in predatory anticipation. Whatever it took, however long it took, he was ready. He was thin and exhausted now, and his foot was bleeding afresh from the old thorn still pressed into brusied flesh, but the dog's eyes burned with feverish passion. Victory was already settled deep in his heart as he snarled. He might be twelve years too late; but after chasing down ordinary rats for his meals for the past long, difficult weeks, Padfoot was poised and ready, every muscle tense and quivering, dying to taste the blood of Wormtail.
I just want to say a quick but heartfelt thank you to all those who have reviewed this story, especially seeing as I haven't, for once, pestered you all into doing so at the end of each chapter :D
To my anonymous reviewers Zoe and reader13, your reviews were much appreciated! Thanks!