Interlude No. 2 Continued

In Ron's dreams, Harry was always dying.

It was a tradition of restless nights that began earlier that summer and hadn't yet faded. Ron watched, with morbid fascination, night after night as Harry bled before him. Ron woke screaming at first, and later he simply charmed his room silent. He thought, upon waking, 'This could be what's happening right now, with me never knowing at all.'

Halloween was creeping up on Hogwarts, and Ron's life had settled into a sort of bleak pattern revolving around getting through the day without fighting any Slytherins – particularly Draco Malfoy. It was obscurely unfair to Ron that Malfoy Jr. got to be safe and sound in a comfortable wizarding school while Harry was… not.

The only positive points of his day were his Defense Against Dark Arts class – the new Professor was bloody wicked – and, oddly enough, the Potions class, for Snape was no longer the teacher.

"He's taken a sabbatical, haven't you heard?" Hermione's eyes glinted with her superior know-it-all-ism, even as she smiled that smile that turned her eyes all soft and made Ron go weak at the knees and queasy at the stomach.

"When'd that happen?" Ron asked haphazardly, knocked mentally askew from the sight of her mouth curving just so, her white teeth gleaming against pink, bitten lips.

Hermione shrugged. "I'm not sure. Long enough for Professor Dumbledore to arrange for someone else to come and take his place, though."

That someone else was none other than Edwin Sorsellson, a Potions master who had chosen to go into research once his training had been complete, whereas Professor Snape had gone into teaching. He was a pleasant ninety year old with an absent-minded commentary on students' skills that was permanently switched to 'on' as he leaned over various students' cauldrons. He was unlike Snape in that he didn't snap at anyone over the littlest mistake; rather, he cast fierce protective charms that only lasted the duration of the class time on each student as he or she walked into the room. He also seemed to delight in explosions and miss-made potions, claiming they were what formed the new discoveries that shaped the Potions portion of the wizarding world. As a result, Neville was his favourite student.

Ron headed for the Great Hall alone, his year mates having gone ahead. He slept in late as a result of always being afraid to go to sleep at night: he didn't want to dream anymore, and was on the verge of asking Professor Sorsellson for a Dreamless potion to ease the nightmares away – or at least numb him so that they no longer affected him as they did. He was taking a roundabout way to the Great Hall through long-deserted hallways, when he saw a disappearing, low black shadow. It looked oddly familiar, and Ron crept after it. He was seized with the sudden need to know what that shadow was.

He followed it through hallway after hallway, dimly aware that his first class of the day was beginning. As he got closer, he saw that the shadow was none other than a black dog – a large, familiar black dog. Ron frowned. Why would Sirius be at Hogwarts, and more importantly, why wouldn't Sirius let he and Hermione know if he were at Hogwarts?

Curiousity and anger further piqued, Ron kept his silence and followed.

"I don't know where he's gotten to, Professor," Hermione told the DADA instructor. "He didn't show up at lunch. Maybe he's feeling ill."

"Yeah, he didn't look too good last night," Seamus added in helpfully. He was sitting a few rows behind Hermione, next to his Hufflepuff girlfriend, Susan Bones. Gryffindor and Hufflepuff had double classes once a week for Defense Against the Dark Arts. It made for a relaxed atmosphere.

Professor Nyx shrugged. "If he comes in to get his missed work before the end of the day, I suppose it would be pointless to alert his Head of House." She smiled her pointy-toothed grin.

It reminded Hermione of a shark.

Professor Stella Nyx was the youngest Professor they'd ever had at age twenty-two. She had frizzy red hair swept up under a pointed witch hat, and utterly be-freckled skin. She was short and thin, her stature resembling that of a breakable doll's, and yet she radiated a sort of McGonagallish formidability. More than that, if she were caught unawares, her startled gaze could pin a student to his place with its intensity. She hadn't been an Auror, or anything combative at all; just a supernatural expert who had spent her youth wandering around the depths of depravity all around the world instead of in a wizarding school. "I learned my magic lessons the hard way," she'd said at the beginning of the first class, and showed them all the hand imprints left on her neck. "Those were burned on when I was twelve. I was stupid, and paid a painful price for it. I hope none of you ever pay such a price."

Hermione thought she was the scariest woman she had ever met, but not in an overt way. Professor Nyx was the sort of person you'd chat with for a half an hour, chills creeping up and down your spine, and until you'd walked away from her, you'd never realize that those chills were because of her smile that threatened in a subconscious manner, or her eyes that saw straight into you and through all the lies you told yourself and everyone else. Hermione thought, 'One day, I'm going to be like her.'

They were working on their shielding charms that day, which Hermione already had down. Professor Nyx had also started them on a martial arts regimen, saying that not all dangers could or even should be dealt with magically.

"It's better to simply punch someone before he or she can cast a hex on you, than to raise your wand, think of your own hex, and cast it. The punch is much quicker, unexpected, and most importantly can knock your opponent out, thereby making it impossible for them to try to curse you again."

For Hermione and the others (of which there were three) who had already mastered the Protego charm, Professor Nyx had them do drills of aerobic exercises. Hermione grunted to Neville, surprisingly one of the other few, as they both did their sit ups, "This is bloody difficult in a robe."

"It's not like our enemy'll give us a chance to change into Muggle clothing before attacking us," Neville pointed out logically. For a moment he sounded so much like Harry that Hermione almost teared up.

She grabbed a hold of herself (metaphorically) and laughed. "I guess you're right, Neville."

"When you turn wolf, you'll let me cut off a piece of your hide?" The cadaverous man asked speculatively, sipping some of his drink – Remus found it better to forego wondering what a Nether creature would consume – and leaning across the table, invaded Remus' personal space.

"If you do what I ask of you," Remus conceded.

"Well, then," the man smiled. His teeth gleamed yellow set in rotting gums. "I assure you, that won't be a problem."

Remus had stayed in World's End for only a few days by his reckoning, but knew that in the real world, anything from a few hours to a few months could have passed him by. Way-houses of reality tended to twist time and space around themselves. Thankfully, he'd come across just who he'd needed: a Prince of the Astral Wastelands.

The man spit on the table and Remus followed suit. Their saliva mixed, glowed, evaporated in a cloud of foul-smelling vapour. "Bargain met and sealed," the man intoned. He turned completely to ash and crumbled to a small, clumpy pile. His tattered clothes remained, but Remus wasn't worried about him; he was just returning to his Realm, the only way of doing so being to cast off his 'skin'.

Remus got up from his table, and walked out of the Commons. It was time to check out, and go home. To Hogwarts.

The classroom was covered in parchment.

More accurately, it looked as if it had been turned INTO parchment, its walls and ceiling and even its floor white and drawn on. Ron had waited for the three hours since Sirius had gone into it until the black dog exited before going in himself.

"What is this?" He marveled to himself. He recognized the shapes on the walls – they were maps. Dozens and dozens and dozens of maps, of England and Spain and Germany; of all over the world. In one corner, in a neat stack, was a sheaf of parchment. Ron stepped over to take a closer look, kneeling and rifling through.

They were… notes. Notes and notes upon notes of Charms, hand scrawled in green ink. In the margins of the spells were comments, such as, 'Need to make specific to magical peoples, else too many to wade through. Even so, maybe even more specificity will be required. All magical peoples with last name Potter? Under sixteen?'

This was what Snuffles had been working on? What WAS it?

Ron thought, 'Time to get Hermione.'

He found her in the Library, steadfastly completely her homework. A line speared across her forehead as she leaned over books with a quill dripping ink. Ron knew she was worried about something by the way she didn't even notice that the quill was blotching her text.

"Hermione?" He called softly. "All right?"

She looked up. "Oh, Ron! Yes, I'm fine. Where've you been all day? The Professors were asking after you, and it's only by the grace of some higher power that McGonagall hasn't heard of your skipping classes, else you'd be dodging her wrath right now."

Ron grimaced. "Can't be helped. I found something out – concerning our mutual canine friend. I need you to come see."

Hermione glanced down at her spread-out work. "Help me carry this back to the Tower, and then we can go."

Ron knew better than to argue his urgency; Hermione was methodical in that, if she could help it, she never left her work disorganized and scattered about. She loftily stated when asked that it made it that much more difficult to pick up later on if all her notes were out of order.

They were coming down out of the Tower fifteen minutes later when they walked into Remus Lupin; the former professor looked worse for wear, even moreso than usual, with a haggard, death-warmed-over look. He looked like a corpse freshly exhumed, with all the dirt brushed away.

"Professor Lupin!"

"Hello children," Remus smiled tiredly. "I'm sorry, but I can't stay to talk. I must see the Headmaster immediately."

"About Harry?" Ron asked eagerly, pressing forward.

Remus shook his head. "I can't talk about that now. After I've seen Dumbledore, I promise you." He nodded his goodbye, and lurched past them.

Ron missed it, but Hermione's sharp eyes caught the trail of dripping blood Remus left in his wake, falling off of the tip of his right hand's fingers. Her eyes darkened in worry and she wondered just where the werewolf had come from.

"I've got an army."

"And the price of it?"

"Was acceptable. Don't worry."

"It is my job to worry. But I have faith in you. Are they ready to march?"

"All we have to do is point them in the right direction." : pause : "Any word on Harry?"

: sigh : "No. Severus has not yet reported in. I can only accept that at the moment he is unable to; and that he is keeping Harry safe."

"He can't even keep HIMSELF safe, let alone a fifteen year old boy!"

"Remus. Be fair."

: semi-hysterical laughter : "Why? Nothing and no one else ever has been." : silence : sigh : "All right. I suppose I must believe in something. Why not in Severus Snape?"

: long pause :

"You'll find Sirius in your old Charms classroom. He has been feverishly working on his own method of finding his errant godson; I trust that you will be able to aid in his endeavors."

"Of course. Thank you for your time, Albus."

"Dear boy, my door is always open to you."

: clicking of door closing : rustling of paper : quiet sigh :

Remus Lupin heard the murmur of raised voices before he could distinguish the words, and couldn't help the small and silly grin that crept over his face at the sound of it. It had been a long time since he'd met teenagers as headstrong and Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley – he fondly remembered his own days of misspent youth – and when they butted skulls against Sirius Black, the results were absurdly comical.

Coming closer he was able to distinguish words, and then whole sentences.

"We have the right to be doing this, just as much as you do! He's our best friend, and we've got magic to burn!" That'd be Hermione; no one Remus had ever met had the outraged squawk down as well as she did. Lily would have been shamed by it.

"Yeah, unlike you! You're still staggering around like a junkie going through cold chicken symptoms!" And that would be Ron, with his confusing metaphors.

"Cold turkey, Ron. And do you even know what a junkie is?"

"Er. A strange sort of Muggle who likes to stand around on the streets?"

Hermione sighed. "I'll explain it all to you later. The truth isn't nearly so pretty. But anyways! Back to the topic at hand! You ARE going to let us help, Sirius Black, and you ARE going to show us how to cast these charms, and you ARE going to sit down and eat something and take a bloody bath, because, quite frankly, you stink."

Remus opened the door with an amused smirk. "She's right, Pads. You smell even worse than when you crawled through the Forbidden Forest for three days and nights back in Sixth. Cripes, the Fat Lady wouldn't even let you in with the smell you had on you."

Sirius didn't seem surprised to see his old friend and instead just turned to him and made a face. "And who was right beside me the entire time? You didn't exactly smell like roses either, you know."

"Ah," Remus smiled knowingly, "but I also didn't wade through the centaurs' dung pits."

Ron gagged; Hermione made a little face.

"What's going on here?" Remus asked, taking note of the room's rather inventive décor.

"We're making a Marauder's Map of Europe," Sirius explained.

"Hah!" Hermione crowed. "You said 'we'! You admit it, you need us!"

Sirius flapped a hand in her direction dismissively. "Yes, yes," he said, "of course. I could never refuse two so dedicated friends." He waved for Remus to sit down on any available stool. He and Hermione were both standing, and Ron was slouched against a wall; but Remus was exhausted from his long journey and couldn't find it in himself to remain upright for much longer. He slumped down and sighed happily.

"A Marauder's Map of Europe? That's not a bad idea. It'll take humongous amounts of work, however. Remember how bad the one of Hogwarts was?"

Sirius shrugged expansively. "We were young and stupid."

"The only thing that's changed is the young part," Remus pointed out wryly.

"Shut up, you. We're not going to be making it anywhere near as detailed as the one for Hogwarts was. Just your basic landmasses, maybe a couple of dots thrown around for towns, and the spelled locations for all wizards under thirty. That was as specific as I could make it without the parameters collapsing in on themselves."

Remus frowned. "Could I see your notes?"

Sirius handed them over silently, Hermione and Ron watching in fascination. They'd never seen the two wizards collaborating on something, and the concentration each gave to the project transformed the men from tired creatures to driven ones.

"Did you do a chart to figure the probability of success?"

"Should be near the back of that stack," Sirius shrugged. "I did one of the higher level Eighth forms under the Astral sign and factored in the differing power structures inherent in the battling forces. We got a fair percentage, but nothing awe-inspiring. We've done more with less, though, Moony."

Ron hadn't a clue what the two were babbling about, but Hermione mouthed to him, "Arithmancy," and it made sense. Arithmancy was Divination without the stupid death warnings and with enough numbers to make any adolescent male's head hurt. Ron hadn't taken it, but obviously Remus and Sirius had, and Hermione was the top in her class for it.

"You're right," Remus frowned, looking over Sirius' work. "These are better odds than when we figured on sneaking in the girls' dorm Fifth year. We made it then, even with Evans' elite charms working against us. You-Know-Who doesn't stand a chance." He settled the stack of notes by his feet. "All right – obviously this Map is going to be more difficult than the last one, but the preliminaries are done with." He fixed his sharp-eyed gaze to Hermione. "You were right about Sirius being almost burnt out. So am I. That means we're going to need you to do the lower-level charms. We're lucky to have you, Miss Granger; there's no one else I'd trust among our students to do such complicated magic." He glanced over at Ron. "I'm sorry, Mr. Weasley, but we don't have the time for you to learn the charms that Miss Granger already knows. We're going to need you to be a tap - do you know what that is?"

Ron nodded. His face was slightly pale beneath his freckles. "Yeah. You'll be using my magic to keep your levels up. The twins do it all the time with one another. I think they have a natural affinity. And I used to with Gin, when we were younger, but it didn't take very well and Mum told us to stop the year I started at Hogwarts."

"A wise decision," Sirius nodded, face grim. "Bonds created by tapping can become binding and if one person remains dominant over the other for a period of time, the tap can unconsciously be made to stay open and active, therefore draining the submissive without permission or knowledge. I'm surprised you and your sister were even compatible enough to tap unaided – it's rare to happen between those of opposite sexes because the nature of the magic is fundamentally different."

Ron shrugged. "She's my sister. Weasley blood is the same no matter who it's in; same with Weasley magic."

Remus frowned. Taps didn't work that way, and neither did magic, but he didn't feel up to it to go into teacher mode at the end of an already long day and explain the differences. Apparently Sirius didn't either, because he just shook his head and smiled a little.

"It's getting late," Sirius pointed out gently. "Hermione, I've got the list of charms you'll need to be able to cast for the next few days. If you wouldn't mind practicing, it'd probably hurry the process up. And Ron, keep up your strength. We'll need it."

Ron and Hermione nodded and stood rigidly tall. They recognized the dismissal when it came and both went over to the door to go back up to their rooms; Hermione hesitated. "It was nice to see you both again," she said. "Take care of yourselves. We'll be back tomorrow after classes."

"G'night," Ron muttered, but it was obvious he shared in Hermione's sentiment.

Sirius and Remus waved them out the door and then sighed wearily as it shut behind them.

Remus said, "This is going to be a lot more difficult than we've made it sound to be, isn't it?"

"Yup. But you know that's just what makes it fun!"

Sirius and Remus shared a smile, filled with wildness but tempered by bone-deep exhaustion. Sometimes it was good to have another person around who understood without saying what it felt like to have come to the end of a very long road, only to find that it forked inevitably in two vastly differing directions – and that each upcoming path might turn out to be even longer than the one they'd just traveled.

Disclaimer&A/N: All characters and settings belong to J.K. Rowling. Sorry for the long wait! My computer actually crashed while I was in the middle of writing this… made me wince, then be hesitant to start with the re-write. It's a lot shorter than it's supposed to be – my pace is starting to slow down because of all of the set-up I have to do for the next couple of chapters. There's going to be another chapter of Hogwarts based stuff, then I'm jumping back to Harry & Snape, I swear. Please don't lynch me! Oh, and I apologize for the excessive use of original characters – they're just too much fun to create and then kill off, you know? Not that I'm saying anyone is going to die…