Author's Note: What might have happened the night of The Prank in Harry's parents' fifth year. Canon.
"If the truth doesn't save us, what does that say about us?" —Lois McMaster Bujold.
If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn't part of ourselves doesn't disturb us." —Hermann Hesse
"Don't worry, Remus—we're almost there. Before you know it, the four of us will be having the time of our lives every full moon," James said bracingly. The Animagi project was actually going pretty well. With any luck, James, Sirius and Peter would be able to turn into animals at will before they took their O.W.L.s—meaning they all ought to ace Transfiguration.
"Right," Remus said sarcastically. "Nothing funner than a highly dangerous, illegal magical endeavor and a werewolf."
"There won't be, you know," James told him firmly.
Remus shrugged, and left to meet Madam Pomfrey, wondering if James knew just what his support meant to Remus. He still remembered the day his three friends had confronted him about his 'furry little problem.' Becoming Animagi had been James's idea, and Sirius had jumped on it immediately. Pete had been a little more hesitant, but James assured him it wouldn't be that hard.
He met Madam Pomfrey at the doors to the castle. "Feeling all right, dear?" she asked.
"Fine," Remus said shortly. They set off, and he stared at the Whomping Willow as they approached, still and innocent in the cool air of a spring evening. Remus took a consciously deep breath and thought, Here we go again
Meanwhile, Sirius was trying to pretend to finish his Charms essay in the library, while Peter worked his way through his own essay and a Sugar Quill. Somehow, pretending to work lost all meaning and relevance without Remus. And Sirius never actually did work, when pretending would do. He was feeling bitter—another full moon, and they were no closer to figuring the Animagi thing out than they had been last month, no matter what James said.
James had no need to be in the library, having finished all his homework. He was probably upstairs in the common room, having a marvelous time begging Evans to go out with him, right now. Sirius scowled.
Nearby, Severus Snape pulled back the heavy curtains a little from one window and peered out onto the grounds. "There he goes again," he muttered. "Lupin, escorted by Pomfrey…he seems to have some sort of monthly illness, like a girl."
Sirius, hearing this, fired up at once (possibly because it was a little like what happened to girls, from what Reggie claimed Bellatrix said Cissy complained about once). Normally—if James had been there, if he hadn't been in the library—Sirius would've hexed Snivellus and left it at that. Or rather, things would've escalated from there until all three of them—Sirius, James, and Snivellus—got sent to the hospital wing, and then the Headmaster's office.
However, since James wasn't there, and hexing Snivellus would certainly get his library privileges revoked, and he did still have that essay to finish, Sirius paused. And that pause was long enough to give him an absolutely brilliant idea.
"Didn't you hear what Snape said?" Peter whispered to him, looking confused. Normally, there would have been insults and hexes being flung around by now.
"Yes," Sirius whispered back. "Listen, don't let on—I've got an idea."
Peter nodded, looking excited.
Sirius sidled up to Snivellus casually—or as casual as a predator on the prowl could look. "So, Snape," he began.
Snivellus turned to glare at him. Sirius only just refrained from returning the glare and hexing him. After all, Sirius had a Plan. "Do you really want to know where Lupin goes every month?"
Warily, Snivellus nodded, one hand still holding the curtain, and the other clenched around his wand.
"Well," Sirius said, lowering his voice conspiratorially, "you can find out. All you have to do…is follow him into the passage—it leads to the Shrieking Shack, in Hogsmeade—you get in through the Whomping Willow."
"Oh, right," Snivellus scoffed. "You're trying to get me to beat myself to death trying to get past the Whomping Willow. You think I'm that stupid, Black?"
Sirius really thought about saying yes, but that wasn't the Plan. "Oh, Snape, how little you understand me," he sighed dramatically instead. "Any idiot could tell you that things like the Whomping Willow always have a weak spot. In this particular case, it's a knot near the base of the trunk. Press that, and the tree stops moving—effective for a couple of minutes."
"You're not just doing this to make me look like a fool in some way, then?" Snivellus asked.
Sirius shrugged. "Won't know unless you test what I've told you. What, too much of a coward to give it a shot? You talk big, Snape, about how you wish you knew where Lupin goes and all, but, first time confronted with an actual opportunity to find out, you're quibbling about how much you don't trust me?"
Snivellus glared at him some more. "Fine," he said at last. "But if you're lying to me, Black—"
"I swear on my mother's grave," Sirius said instantly.
"Er, Sirius?" piped up Peter. "Your mother's alive."
Sirius brushed this fact aside as a mere bagatelle.
Snape gave him one more look, then swept past him in a flurry of black robes, no doubt heading for the Whomping Willow, the Shrieking Shack, and a nearly-fully-grown werewolf.
Sirius turned to Peter, grinning. He looked down at his open textbooks and half-finished essay, brushed his hands together, and said, "Well. My work here is done."
"James, you will never believe what Sirius just did!" Peter exclaimed about half-an-hour later (Sirius knew his work wasn't actually done; in truth, those last twenty minutes he'd spent on that essay had been some of his best work ever. Somehow, after having dealt so expeditiously with Snape, he'd felt a serene calm that enabled him to finish the essay with ease—not even pretending to work, actually working.) as Peter and Sirius burst through the Gryffindor portrait hole. Peter sounded half-awed, ¼ deeply impressed, and the final quarter petrified with apprehension.
James looked up from the piece of parchment upon which he'd been doodling. The doodle looked suspiciously like the initials L.E. intertwined with the initials J.P. "What did Sirius do?" he asked.
"That'll show Snivellus to come nosing around our business, trying to get us expelled," Sirius said in tones of deep self-satisfaction.
"What'll show Snivellus?" James asked, brightening. Anything to get rid of his archrival for Lily's affections.
"Sirius sent Snape down the tunnel toward the Shrieking Shack!" Peter exclaimed loudly. People in other corners of the common room glanced around idly.
"WHAT?" James exclaimed, leaping to his feet and knocking over his inkwell. He lowered his voice, since people were now staring, but his tone was colder than Sirius had ever heard it, especially directed at one of James's fellow Marauders. "You realize tonight is a full-moon night, right?" he asked, and his words bit into Sirius's conscience. "You sent Snape to get bitten by a werewolf!"
"Well…it will show him," Sirius argued.
"If he doesn't get eaten," Peter added. "And if Remus doesn't get expelled."
"They wouldn't expel Remus for this," Sirius asserted, feeling less sure of his ground every minute, "Would they?"
"Are you kidding?" James whispered back furiously. "Manslaughter? He'll be lucky if they don't throw him in prison! Not to mention, we don't want to kill Snape!"
"We don't?" asked Sirius, trying to joke.
Peter shrugged, but James glared. "When did this happen?" he demanded.
"About half-an-hour ago," said Peter, in a tone that abdicated all responsibility.
James blanched, and practically ran toward the portrait hole, yanking it open. "You coming?" he asked savagely, not looking at Sirius.
Sirius, recalled to a sense of his obligations, leapt forward, closely followed by Peter, who looked as though he might have preferred to remain safely in the common room.
The three of them raced down the stairs and out the front door and across the grounds, James leading the other two. He didn't even stop when Professor McGonagall demanded to know where he thought he was going this time of night. "Don't come with me," James told his companions coldly, as they ran. "There won't be room in the passage." Sirius felt shut out, hurt, and relieved, all at the same time.
James sent a twig to jab ferociously at the knot, the Whomping Willow froze, and James sent Sirius one last look full of hurt, anger and disappointment before racing into the passageway. Sirius felt his conscience twinge some more—he never wanted to see that look on James's face again—and awkwardly sat down on the hard ground. Peter sat next to him, looking worried.
It was hard going—the passage was a little small, after all, and James was trying to hurry—but he was rewarded, after awhile, by the sight of Snape's long black cloak whispering over the ground and around a corner ahead of him. He sped up.
When he rounded the bend, he saw Snape standing paralyzed before the werewolf. Almost fully-grown now, it growled menacingly. In the passageway, it looked like a dark shadow with claws and fangs. James saw Snape raise his wand hesitantly, and the werewolf bare its teeth, about to charge—
James grabbed a fistful of Snape's robes and yanked, hard; Snape staggered backward just as the werewolf leapt forward, and James began running up the passage, dragging Snape along willy-nilly. He could hear the werewolf behind him, gaining on them, if Snape's shrieks of terror were anything to go by. James didn't blame him—he felt like screaming himself.
At last, at last, they were through the hole that led to the passage—James breathed clean air again, dragged Snape out of range of the Whomping Willow to where Sirius and Peter stood waiting, and sighed with relief when the branches started moving again and the werewolf's way of egress was blocked. Hopefully it would go back to the Shrieking Shack, stay away from them—they were safe.
"Get. Off. Me. Potter!" growled Snape. James let go of his robes at once, rubbing his palm on his jeans reflexively. "That thing—could've killed me—is this your idea of a joke?" Snape demanded of James, turning to face him and including Sirius and Peter in the accusation by association.
James blinked. "No, of course not!"
"Ah," Snape said thoughtfully. "Then I suppose you meant it as a sincere attempt to murder me?" He drew his wand.
Sirius stepped forward to James's side and drew his own wand threateningly. Peter stood between the three of them, looking terrified.
"No, no, of course not!" James said again. "We weren't trying to kill you, Snape, I swear."
"Just thought you'd get your pet werewolf to finish me off, eh?" Snape growled. "Too bad for you, now I know Lupin's secret."
"Don't you dare tell anyone!" Sirius said at once.
James, sensing that he was losing control over the situation—spells and duels would not improve the level of tension at the moment, he was sure—made a conscious effort to relax. He put a hand on Sirius's wand arm warningly, and gave Snape an easy grin. "It was just a prank, Snivellus," he lied. "What's the matter, can't take a joke?"
Peter gasped, and Sirius's muscles tightened under James's restraining hand. Snape did not lower his wand. "A joke, eh?" he breathed softly. "I guess this'll be a joke, too!" A beam of light shot from his wand, and James leaped out of the way just in time. It missed him by inches.
"Listen, Snape," he said quickly and quietly, moving closer. "I saved your life down there."
"Only so you and your pet werewolf wouldn't get in trouble," countered Snape swiftly. "What's the matter, Potter? Cold feet at the last minute? Consequences of murder too much for you?"
"I take it you don't have the same problem," accused Sirius.
Snape laughed bitterly. "Oh, come now, Black—you don't really think I can take you and Potter together, do you? I'm touched."
"You'll have to go through me," Peter asserted, voice shaking only a little.
Snape laughed again. "Oh, right, like you could stop me. You know they call you 'pathetic Pettigrew' in the dungeons? I'm sure it's what Potter and Black really think of you—they just don't want to lose a valuable stooge."
"That's not true!" Sirius said just a fraction of a second too quickly. Peter flushed bright red, and James shut his eyes for a moment, trying to rally.
"What's going on here, boys?" came a calm voice from behind them.
Professor Dumbledore led the four of them up to his office, and such was the seriousness of the situation that neither Sirius nor Snape made any threatening moves. They contented themselves with giving each other Death Glares instead.
It was late enough that most people had gone back to their common rooms, but the prefects were still around, patrolling. James was devoutly thankful Evans was currently at the other side of the castle, which he knew because the Head Boy, Benjy Fenwick, was a friend of his, and had told him Evans's patrol schedule.
"In," Dumbledore told them sternly, once the gargoyles had leapt out of the way and practically bowed before the Headmaster. Sirius climbed the steps first, then Peter, then James, and then Snape. Last of all, Dumbledore closed the door of his office with a resounding finality, conjured four chairs for them all, and said, "Sit." They sat. He walked leisurely around his desk, ate a lemon drop in passing, and sat down. "Now then," he said genially, blue eyes grave for once. "I find the four of you outside after curfew, congregated around the Whomping Willow, which is off limits for obvious reasons…Explain."
"They tried to kill me!" Snape burst out, glaring at James.
"Did not!" Sirius asserted half-heartedly, more on James's behalf than his own. James wondered how exactly he should play this. What would happen if Dumbledore knew it was Sirius who had almost gotten Snape killed? Almost on purpose—although, James told himself, it was hardly Sirius's fault that he was so impulsive, and the provocation couldn't be ignored. But still—this could get very awkward.
"That inbred idiot," Snape began, jerking a finger at Sirius, who scowled fiercely and started to interrupt. Dumbledore raised one hand.
"Mr. Snape, for the purposes of this discussion, kindly refrain from using any such foul language," Dumbledore said calmly. Snape looked as though he itched to say, 'you call that foul language? I'll show you foul language!' and start cursing Sirius in earnest, but instead he continued, "Fine. Black told me I'd find out where Lupin goes every month if I went through the passage that the Whomping Willow conceals. He said you could make the tree stop moving by pressing a knot near the trunk. So I decided to see if he was telling the truth."
"Aware that your actions would be considered against school rules?" Dumbledore asked gently. James wished he knew which school rules—was there one against being nosy?—but Dumbledore didn't look like he was about to explain any time soon.
Snape scowled. "I guess. Not really—it was still before curfew then. So I go down there, and Black was right about the tree, so I decided to investigate. I walked down the passage for ages and ages, until I saw this open trap-door—and then this huge monster appears and starts chasing me!"
"Knew it," Sirius muttered. "Snivellus ran like a girl."
"Wouldn't you have?" Peter whispered back. Sirius conveyed his scorn for this idea by sprawling in his seat and examining his shoes with great interest.
"I realized it was a werewolf, of course," Snape was continuing. "It came straight for me! It caught up to me—it was going to kill me! Then Potter appeared, blocking my only way of egress, realized the werewolf was practically on top of us, and ran like hell."
"You seem to owe something to Mr. Potter," Dumbledore suggested slowly. "Would you call that an accurate summary of events, Mr. Black, Mr. Potter, Mr. Pettigrew?"
Sirius shrugged. Peter nodded. James sighed, and launched into His Version.
"You see," he said, smiling at Dumbledore disarmingly. It was the same smile he gave McGonagall when she caught him pranking the Slytherins, the same smile he gave his mother when she wanted to cut his hair, and the same smile he gave Evans when she accused him of being an obnoxious idiot. It really was very charming—and very practiced.
"We've always had a bit of a rivalry with Snape," James said, making a colossal understatement with true dramatic flair. Snape scowled. "And, well, he's always been a bit curious about where Remus goes every month. Which is private and no one's business but Remus's. So then tonight, Remus went down to the Shrieking Shack like he always does, and the idea just came to us, totally spur-of-the-moment, no real planning, that it might be a good thing if Snape found out why Remus has to sneak off somewhere every month. You know, because then he would stop nosing around in other people's business. In theory. So Sirius told Snape how to get past the Whomping Willow, and it was only later that we realized how the plan could go wrong—really wrong. So we dashed off to rescue Snape, and there was only room for one person, so I went into the tunnel and grabbed him and got him out before the werewolf could hurt him. No harm done, right?" And he smiled winningly again.
"No harm done?" Snape began furiously, but Dumbledore held up a warning hand again.
"I see," he said slowly. "So you planned a trick on Mr. Snape which backfired? And did none of you think about the consequences of your actions? What about you, Mr. Pettigrew? You've been rather silent."
"It all happened just like James said," Peter muttered quickly. "No one thought about it too hard. Remus is the thinker."
"Yes, and that's the other highly relevant point here!" Snape exclaimed, reminded. "Lupin is a werewolf! Did you know Lupin is a werewolf?" he demanded of Dumbledore, then answered his own question. "Of course you did. And you let him go here, knowing that something like this might happen?"
"Hey," scowled Sirius. "Remus is perfectly harmless! Wouldn't hurt a fly."
The patent ridiculousness of this statement was too much even for James to explain away. He shot Sirius a quick, reproving glare.
"Except three nights a month," Peter said quietly.
There was a small silence.
"You can't tell anyone about Remus being a werewolf, understand?" Sirius told Snape quietly and fiercely. "Anyone!"
"Black," Snape said carefully, "you are aware, aren't you, that werewolves are highly dangerous magical creatures. What would happen if he managed to escape the Shrieking Shack? It was a close-run thing out there, after the tree started moving again. Or did that fact escape your keen notice?"
"Now, now, boys," Dumbledore said calmly. "That's enough of that. Mr. Snape, the faculty is aware of Mr. Lupin's unique situation. I assure you that all security problems in that regard will be taken care of." Snape looked unconvinced. "Given the nature of Mr. Lupin's condition, and the fragile political situation surrounding it, I am going to have to ask you not to reveal what has happened tonight to anyone, at any point. May I have your word?"
Snape scowled, and for a moment James thought he was going to refuse. But at last, after glaring at James and Sirius a bit more, he jerked his head down in an awkward nod. "All right. I won't tell." There was a pause while James, Sirius, Peter, and possibly even Dumbledore breathed sighs of relief. "But I hope you're going to punish them! They tried to kill me!" Snape added vehemently.
"Their punishments will be severe, I assure you," Dumbledore told him. "And now, if you have nothing else to tell me, perhaps you should visit the Hospital Wing."
Snape scowled, nodded again, and got up. James saw, now that the moment of crisis had largely passed, that little cuts and bruises littered Snape's hands and face, no doubt incurred during that frantic flight to safety. Snape didn't look at James or Sirius as he left. His robes billowed behind him menacingly, and James spared a thought to wonder if there were some sort of Dark magic spell involved.
"Now," Dumbledore said, once the door had closed behind Snape and they'd listened to his footsteps retreating down the stairs. Sirius waited, in growing resentment, for the inevitable punishment.
It really was unfair that everyone was making such a big deal about this. True, if he'd thought about it from Remus's point of view he would never have done it, but otherwise he still felt perfectly justified. Why not let Snape take his chances? He deserved it, really. Such a miserable little twerp—always with his long nose in a book the likes of which Sirius had seen all too often in his family home. And it wasn't as though Sirius had actually meant to kill him—just give him a good scare, and maybe he could've gotten whapped by the Whomping Willow a few times on the way out. Not a big deal—certainly nothing that deserved a particularly severe punishment, no more than the taunts and pranks and rule-breaking that were part of Sirius's everyday life.
"You will tell me the truth," Dumbledore said, and Sirius sat up in his chair. So Dumbledore had seen through that story of James's after all. Now what? Sirius wasn't really worried, not at all. If worst came to worst, his father would come marching up to the school and tell Dumbledore not to mess with his son and heir, and anyway Dumbledore must want to keep the whole thing under wraps because of Remus. So he decided to tell James's story again, this time with one difference.
"Well," Sirius said casually, "the truth is, Professor, the whole thing was my idea."
There was an indignant, disapproving noise from James. Peter's eyes were as wide as saucers.
"You see, everything James told you was totally accurate, except I was the one who thought it up. James figured out what a bad idea it was, and then of course I realized."
"Ah," said Dumbledore, but there was a depth of meaning in that 'Ah.' Sirius couldn't help feeling a certain foreboding that Dumbledore had read his lack of remorse over Snape. "In that case," Dumbleodore continued, "You, Mr. Black, will be in detention nightly for two weeks, starting tomorrow. You will also be denied Hogsmeade privileges for the rest of the year, and I will take fifty points from Gryffindor. I expect nothing but model behavior from you from now on. Also," and here his voice softened, "I urge you not to visit Mr. Lupin until I have had a chance to speak with him.
"Mr. Potter, you acted very courageously. However, in future I recommend seeking a teacher's assistance for something this serious. Both you and Mr. Pettigrew will receive one detention, for acting as accessories to Mr. Black. I need hardly add that none of you will mention the details of this evening to anyone, is that clear? Allow me to speak to Mr. Lupin first."
"Yes, Professor," they chorused, and at last they were allowed to go.
Dumbledore sat in silence and stillness for a long time after they were gone, thinking.
The next day Snape didn't say a word to any of them. He even refrained from his customary insults. It cost James something, but so did he—even when he saw Snape and Lily Evans bending their heads together over a fall exam schedule.
Sirius was contrite for what he'd done to Remus, but when they were finally allowed to see him, and Madam Pomfrey had hurried away, Sirius only got two words into his prepared apology. "Remus, I'm s—"
Remus looked at Sirius, then, and his glance was so cold and indifferent that Sirius shivered and stopped speaking.
As usual, it was left to James to fill in the breach. "Remus, are you all right?" he asked. "We were worried."
Remus laughed. "You were worried? Worried about your pet werewolf you can sic onto anyone you don't like? I'm touched."
"It wasn't like that," Sirius started.
"Of course it was." Remus had retreated behind a mask of sarcasm and cold indifference. "Don't pretend anything different, Black."
"So," Peter said, to cover up the hurt look on Sirius's face and the venom in Remus's tone. "We brought you homework."
"Yeah," added James, "and Snape won't tell, don't worry, Dumbledore made him swear."
"I know," Remus said unexpectedly. "He came and told me so, after Dumbledore left."
"He told you—?" Sirius was incredulous.
"Well, that's great," James said a little too heartily.
"Do you completely hate me now?" Sirius blurted.
"Would you blame me if I did?" Remus countered swiftly. "Sirius—we've been friends for years, and the only thing I've ever asked you—of any of you—is not to tell anyone my secret. And you blab it to Snape? You almost made me murder someone."
"I didn't mean to," Sirius insisted. "I didn't, Remus! It just—happened!"
"Well, sometimes that's not good enough," Remus said. He sighed, and addressed James. "Pass me that homework, why don't you?"
I'm nearly killed and all they get is a slap on the wrist, thought Severus Snape darkly when he learned of the Marauders' punishment—no worse than they'd suffered many times before for various 'high-spirited but ill-timed' pranks.
Avery and Mulciber joked about what those four idiot, blood-traitor Gryffindors deserved, and Snape laughed, in spite of knowing they'd never get it.
It was weeks before Remus would speak to Sirius without saying something cutting and horrid. James didn't think he really forgave Sirius until they revealed the Great Animagi Extravaganza a couple of months later. And even then, Remus would make remarks about The Prank whenever he thought any of them weren't listening to him.
Snape never told, which was good, because Remus would've suffered a lot. Been expelled, even. James didn't like to think what would've happened if he hadn't gotten to Snape in time.
Dumbledore kept looking at the four of them thoughtfully. James didn't like that look. For one thing, it made it harder to do any pranks, and for another, it suggested Dumbledore was considering how best to use their friendship and their rivalry with Snape to his advantage. Every time James thought this, he berated himself for being so paranoid, and reminded himself that Dumbledore had been in Gryffindor.
Still. There was something odd about it all.
Evans never found out, as far as James knew, which, really, was the silver lining he'd been looking for.