Remus stared out the curtained window of his dormitory. The sky was a deep blue, just on the cusp of dusk. As hard as he looked, he knew he wouldn't see the moon for a few hours yet. He sighed. Another night of another month. A few more minutes, and he would have to go see Madame Pomfrey to be escorted to the Whomping Willow, and to his imprisonment.
He heard feet clomping up the spiral stairs, but he just rested his chin on the window sill. Not long now…
"Hey, Remus!" James bounded over to him and stood there, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "Sirius and I were thinking we should check out that second floor corridor again. I swear I felt the cloak of that humpback witch statue move the last time we were down there. There's got to be loads of secret passages out of the castle, we found the one last month."
Remus finally looked up at him. "Not tonight," he said. "I-I'm feeling a little ill. Think I'll go see if I can find a cold remedy in the hospital wing."
James rolled his eyes. "You're about the sickliest bloke I've ever met. How many times have you gotten ill this term, anyway?"
Six times. Remus had the exact count memorized. Six months of school, six full moons, six disappearances he could barely explain to his friends.
He realized James was waiting for an answer, so he just shrugged.
"Well, then. The least I can do is walk you up there, don't you think?" He pulled Remus to his feet and began to lead him away from the window.
"No!" cried Remus, yanking his arm away. James raised an eyebrow in surprise. "I mean – it's not that big a deal. You don't have to come with me."
"What are mates for? Just don't retch on me, all right?"
Remus ducked his head. He didn't deserve a friend like James. Not when he was keeping such a dangerous secret.
They walked together to the hospital wing, James talking animatedly while Remus grew quieter and quieter. As they entered the infirmary, Madame Pomfrey came out of her office to meet them.
"There you are, Mr. Lupin, I expected you some time ago –" She stopped in her tracks, verbal and physical, as she saw who was accompanying him. "Mr. Potter. I would think you spent enough time here, with all those Quidditch injuries you bring in."
"Just here for Remus," said James with a lazy grin. "Besides, what else am I supposed to do on a Thursday night?"
"Homework," said Remus, a little bit hoarsely. "I know for a fact you haven't finished Binns's essay, and it's due tomorrow."
"Like I said," said James.
"Well, Mr. Potter," said Madame Pomfrey, "I'm going to have to ask you to leave now while I look after Mr. Lupin." She shooed him out of the infirmary, closing the door firmly once she was satisfied that James was on his way. "Cut it a little close, didn't you?" she said to Remus in her no-nonsense tone. Remus truly loved Madame Pomfrey for that; no matter how strange his…situation was, she treated him with the same sensibleness as if he had taken a bad Bludger to the head. She could almost make him believe lycanthropy was really just an illness, and not a curse.
They made their way down to the Whomping Willow, the nurse tutting as she looked at the setting sun. "Just to be safe, let's get you in a little earlier next month, dear," she told him. She flicked her wand, and the waving branches froze in place. Remus clambered in between them and slid between the roots that led to the secret passageway. Wouldn't James be pleased to learn about this one, he thought bitterly as he crawled through the dusty tunnel. Off of school grounds and opening up all the way at Hogsmeade – Remus could only imagine what trouble his friends could get into with this passage. And then he came back to that thought. Imagine what trouble his three friends would get into if they ever discovered him at the end of the passage. He shuddered and continued crawling.
The Shrieking Shack was not an old house, but it disuse and abuse certainly made it seem that way. As Remus tread softly through the rooms, he wondered what the residents of Hogsmeade thought about it. Haunted, certainly, and he knew that Dumbledore encouraged that train of thought. But the Willow, the tunnel, the house, all were in place for him, which meant that none were very old. Still, he was the only one who made use of it.
Remus trailed his fingers across the shredded walls of the house as he made his way to a boarded-up window. He could see the moon rising now, pale and bloated and cruel. It hovered behind the wizarding shops. Not long now…
He felt the moment when the moon's pull reached torturous strength. Felt the sting across his skin, and the ache as his bones began to rearrange themselves. Heard them crack, shift, reform. Tasted the magic as his mouth and nose elongated into a muzzle, as fur sprouted from his skin. He howled in anguish as his mind – oh, not that, don't make him lose that – reverted to the basest instincts of the beast.
The wolf stood quivering on the bare, scratched floor. It shook itself once, twice, shedding the scraps of clothing that had burdened its previous form, and dropped to four paws. Hurt. Hunger. It prowled around the edges of its prison, looking for escape. So hungry…
Suddenly, its nostrils flared. Food. Meat. Swinging its great head low across the ground, it followed the scent to a crack in the floorboards. The meat made a noise. Prey, then. Prey for hunting. The wolf threw back its head and bayed its attack, and in that moment, it heard a noise like a scream and there was light and movement and pain. The wolf backed up, snarling, and saw the prey had moved across the enclosure. There were three. Three weak prey. The wolf could smell their fear, and its belly rumbled.
"It's us, Remus! We're your friends, remember? Your mates!"
The prey made noises that the wolf didn't understand. All it knew was fear-scent and food. It growled and leapt at the prey, but something hit it, and there was pain, and the wolf whimpered as it was thrown back against the wall. It got to its feet, growled again, and launched itself at the prey. Again, they made strange noises, and again, it was thrown by an invisible foe.
The wolf forgot its hunger, forgot everything except the challenge it was losing. It ran again, this time veering away from the prey and going headlong into a wall. No foe. It turned and tried again in another spot. No foe. It turned back to the prey, but the three small creatures now levitated beyond the wolf's reach. One of them made whimpering noises that whetted the wolf's hunger.
It tried to get them. All night, it ran and jumped and twisted, but it could not reach the food. Even as the night wore on, and both hunter and hunted grew weary, and the prey dropped slowly down toward the wolf's range, it still could not reach. Finally, the wolf settled onto its belly and dropped its head to its paws. It watched the prey with cold yellow eyes that did not blink until –
Until the wolf was wracked with spasms of pain, unbearable shooting pain, and it howled until its muzzle reformed into a mouth so it could scream, and its body curled up on its hairless self, and though the pain it heard gasps from the others in the room until it couldn't take any more and surrendered to unconsciousness.
When Remus opened his eyes, the first thing he noticed was the filthy floor he lay on. Deep ruts cut through the wood, gouged out by lethally sharp claws, and there were dark maroon stains saturated deep within the grooves.
The second thing he noticed was the three boys clustered at the far end of the room, staring solemnly at him.
Remus groaned and propped himself up on his arm. He curled his knees up into his chest – the Change never left his clothing intact – and assessed them with equal parts caution and incredulity.
"Are you back to you?" That was Sirius, and Remus cringed at the forced lightness in his tone.
"Yeah." His voice was dry and raspy. It came out as little more than a whisper. "How long—"
"We've been here all night," said James quietly. "Saw you go furry and back."
Remus shut his eyes tightly. They had seen him Change. Seen him as the beast, the awful raving creature. His eyes flew right open again. "Did I hurt you?" he asked, his breath hitching. Never before had he wished he could remember! "Did it—I—"
"You tried to!" cried Peter. Sirius and James immediately shushed him, but he said, "You attacked us, but we spelled ourselves to safety."
"James and I spelled us," corrected Sirius. "You could barely levitate yourself for a minute before you needed our help."
"So you're okay," said Remus. He dropped back to the floor and sighed in relief.
James crept closer to him. "So all this time, you've been a—" His voice caught on the word.
"A werewolf," said Sirius, and then crowed. "That's quite a secret you've been hiding, mate! And we never guessed, this whole time."
"How did you find me?" Remus croaked. Secrecy was the key. If he didn't have secrecy, he wouldn't be allowed to stay at Hogwarts.
"I saw you and Madame Pomfrey on your way out of the castle." James crouched down so he was nearly eye-to-eye with Remus. "I, er, might have taken the long way home. Stopped by the witch's statue, you know?"
The barest hint of a smile crept onto Remus's face, and James took it as a sign to go on.
"So I followed, and when you disappeared into the Whomping Willow of all places, I ran back to get Sirius and Peter. It took us a couple bruises to find your passageway, but after that it was cake. Well, until you got all bloodthirsty, anyway."
Remus cringed. He couldn't remember much from his time as the wolf…just that he had been hunting something, and he had been ravenous. Ravenous for his own friends! "So I guess that's it, then," he said dully. "We'll get out of here, and I'll find…somewhere to go. Guess I'll have to tell Dumbledore I screwed it up."
"What are you talking about?" asked Sirius.
He refused to meet any of their eyes. "I can't stay in Gryffindor House, can I? You wouldn't want the likes of me where you sleep. Maybe I can just stay in the dungeons."
"I don't understand," said James. "Remus, what are you going on about? You belong in Gryffindor with us. There is no way the dungeons are better than a nice four-poster."
"But—you know now. Know that I'm a werewolf." He barely choked out the last word.
"But you're Remus, too." Peter was keeping his distance, but his words were honest. "You're still our friend."
Remus looked up at each of them. Sirius, with a devilish grin plastered across his face. James, and his easy acceptance. Peter, who stood by even while quivering in fear. His friends.
He swallowed a lump that had formed in his throat. His friends. They knew the worst of him, had spent the night staving off his beast, and still they supported him.
In a fluid motion, James pulled the invisibility cloak from his pocket and threw it over Remus's trembling body. Remus dragged himself to his feet, and laughed when he imagined the disembodied head that the others were seeing. He tucked the cloak tightly around himself and looked again at the three standing before him.
"Thank you," he said, putting all his emotions into the two words. "Thank you."