A/N: Thanks for sticking with this story through the insane delay! I hope you enjoy this installment.
I don't own the Harry Potter universe.
"Remus is leaving again."
"When?" Sirius looked up as James sat down next to him in the common room.
If James answered his question, Sirius completely missed it; he was trying to finish the last answer on his Charms homework. When he looked up, James was looking at him expectantly.
Realizing that it was clearly his turn to talk, Sirius asked another question, this time determined to hear the answer. "Is his mum still sick?"
"That's what he said." James sighed. "I'm worried about his mum, Sirius. I mean, he's left once a month ever since we got here to go visit her. She must be really sick."
"It's only November," Sirius pointed out. "And, next month, he'll be home for Christmas. Maybe that will help her get better - you know, having him home for a while, instead of just a weekend."
"It's not a weekend this time, though. He's leaving tomorrow, Sirius."
Sirius' eyes widened. "Tomorrow's Tuesday." There's the answer I missed, he thought.
"I know! That's what I've been trying to tell you."
Sirius ran a hand through his hair. "You're right, James. She must be really sick." He glanced around the common room. "Where is Remus? Packing?"
James shook his head. "He's in the library with Peter. That's where I talked to him."
"Ah, so you were tutoring Peter again?" Sirius asked, glancing pointedly at James' mussed hair.
James reached up, rather self-consciously, and ruffled his hair. "You know, I never worried about my hair until I started hanging out with you and Remus."
"Oh, yeah, like you worry so much now," Sirius laughed. "You only want to make it messier."
James grinned, but didn't reply.
Classes weren't the same on Wednesday without Remus. Sirius and James tried to stay focused, but it was harder without Remus there to give them a pointed look, or to set a good example by taking notes. Peter was no help in the motivation department. He was content to follow James and Sirius' lead. Unfortunately for the three of them, that nearly won them a detention as they strayed off-task in Charms, deliberately trying to set things on fire.
For James, it wasn't even Professor Flitwick's anger, or the twenty points he took from Gryffindor that stung. It was Lily's disgusted look as she watched them.
"Look at Lily," he muttered to Sirius. "She looks angry."
"We just lost points from Gryffindor," Sirius replied. "Of course she'd be angry."
James shook his head. "Why does she hate me so much?"
"Why are you taking this so personally? Maybe she's upset about something else."
"Yeah, I guess you're right …"
"Shhh!" Peter hissed, looking from his friends to Professor Flitwick pointedly.
Glancing at Flitwick, who looked on the verge of taking more points from Gryffindor, James and Sirius fell silent.
"You'd think someone who was so bright would be a bit more mature," Lily muttered to Olivia, who was sitting next to her.
Olivia shook her head. "No, I don't think so. I mean, they can act that way and still make good marks. Why bother working harder than you have to?"
Lily gave her own head a shake. "Honestly, Liv, sometimes I think you're as bad as they are."
Olivia smiled. "I'll take that as a compliment. I think they're rather amusing."
"Now I know you're as bad as they are."
"Miss Evans! Miss Alexander! Please stop talking and work on the assignment!"
Realizing that James and Sirius had pushed Flitwick to the breaking point, Lily and Olivia fell silent. They had no desire to lose any more points for Gryffindor.
"Twenty points!" Sirius exclaimed as they left the Charms classroom. "And, it's not as if we didn't achieve something!"
"We nearly set a desk on fire, Sirius," James laughed. "I don't think Flitwick felt that was a constructive use of our time."
"But, we did achieve it," Sirius argued. "I mean, we had the flames on the desk already, and were about to try to contain them. Isn't that a constructive use of our time?"
"Not when we were supposed to be reviewing levitation," James replied.
"At least we didn't get detention," Peter said. "Can you imagine the look on Remus' face if he could have seen what happened?"
"I don't want to," James said. "Somehow, I think he might have agreed with Flitwick about that being a waste of our time."
"I still wish he were here at least to hear this conversation," Peter said. "Somehow I think it would cheer him up."
"Why does he need cheering up?" Sirius asked.
"He's seemed depressed all week."
"Peter is right," James said. "He didn't seem right when I talked to him in the library last night."
"He didn't seem like himself when we were studying," Peter added. "He was rather short with me, and he's always so patient."
"He's probably just worried about his mum," Sirius shrugged.
"I hope that's all that's bothering him," James said. "I mean, having your mum that sick must be terrible. I hope there's nothing else on top of that."
"We can ask him about it when he gets back," Sirius said.
"Do we really need to do that?" Peter asked.
"Why not?" Sirius said. "We're his best friends, aren't we?"
"Yes, of course," Peter said. "But if there was something he needed to say, don't you think he would tell us?"
James frowned slightly. "He has a point, Sirius. I'm sure Remus would tell us if something else was bothering him."
Sirius shrugged. "If you're sure. But, sometimes I think that Remus is keeping something from us."
"Why would he do that? He knows we're his friends," Peter argued.
"I don't know. But sometimes . . . he just seems a bit distant."
James' frown deepened. "That's a good point, too. He does seem afraid to get too close sometimes. But I don't know why. Like you said, Peter, he knows we're his friends. We stick together, don't we?"
Sirius nodded his head. "And we all know that, don't we?"
"Of course we do," Peter said. "Remus knows it just as well as we do."
"Then why do I still feel like we're missing something?" Sirius asked.
"None of us are going to be satisfied until we find out, are we?" James asked.
"Probably not," Sirius agreed.
"Then why don't we ask him?"
"What, just come right out and ask?"
"Why not? We're friends, aren't we?"
"I guess it's the best way to do it," Sirius agreed.
Peter looked between them apprehensively. "Unless it's something he'd rather keep private."
"We all agreed that we're friends, didn't we?"
"Yeah, but …"
Peter sighed and shook his head. "This has so much potential to go wrong."
"You're part of this, too, Peter," James said.
"So, don't go begging to get out now," Sirius warned. "We stick together."
Peter nodded, his friends' certainty that they were doing the right thing giving him new resolve. "We stick together."
By the time Remus returned, James, Sirius, and Peter had convinced themselves that he was hiding something. He walked into the common room on Thursday evening, and found them sprawled across the floor in front of the fire. Not suspecting that anything was amiss, he crossed the room to join them.
"Hi," he said, settling himself on the floor.
James and Sirius looked at him sharply. The both noticed the bruises on his face and arms.
"What happened to you?" Sirius asked.
"Well, that's quite a greeting," Remus replied, immediately uncomfortable.
He had caused himself more harm than usual this month, and Madam Pomfrey had been unable to remove all the remnants of his self-inflicted wounds. He had been hoping that no one would notice, but, of course, that was foolish. How could his friends not notice the cuts that, upon closer inspection, were bite marks?
"Sorry," Sirius said carelessly. "How are you, mate?"
"Glad to be back," Remus answered honestly.
"Look, Remus, we're a bit worried about you," James said carefully.
Remus shook his head. "It's my mum you should be worried about," he said. "Not me. I'm fine."
"We're not sure you are," Sirius said, picking up where James had left off. "Is there anything we should know, Remus?"
"What are you on about?" Remus asked, looking confused. "Why would there be something you should know?"
As he looked from Sirius to James to Peter, Remus prayed his friends wouldn't see the fear in his eyes. They can't know! They'll never speak to you again! Don't tell them, Remus! His thoughts were screaming at him so loudly he was surprised his friends didn't hear them.
"You've just been a bit distant recently," James said.
"Oh, well, I've been worried about my mum," Remus said with the smooth skill of one who had ample opportunities to practice his lie. "I thought she was getting better when I left last month, and then McGonagall told me I had to go visit her again … you'd be distant, too, if your mum was that ill."
"I suppose you're right," James agreed. "Are you sure there's nothing else?"
"I'm sure," Remus said firmly.
"Well, in that case, I think Peter needs help with Defense Against the Dark Arts," Sirius said lightly.
Remus laughed. "It's good to feel needed." He picked his bag up. "I'm going to put this away, and I'll get my book and notes, Peter."
"Thanks, Remus," Peter said.
After Remus had disappeared up the staircase, the three boys looked at one another.
"Well?" James asked. "What do you think?"
"I'm not sure," Sirius admitted.
"But, we have to believe him, don't we?" James asked.
"We don't have any reason not to," Peter said. "I say we believe him. Take him at his word."
"I'm with Peter," James said, "but you don't look convinced, Sirius."
"I'm not," Sirius said frankly. "But I don't think we have any choice but to believe him. It's like Peter said - we have no reason not to."
Their conversation ended as Remus' light footsteps sounded on the stairs. He smiled at Peter.
Peter nodded. "Library?"
They left together, and James looked at Sirius.
"Peter's right, you know. If we're going to be friends, if we're going to stick together, then we have to trust one another."
Sirius nodded slowly. "Right. I trust you all … including Remus."
James smiled. "Good."
As the days remaining until Christmas decreased, Lily found that her nervousness increased. She watched as her friends packed their trunks and chattered excitedly about all they would do when they arrived home, but could not share in their enthusiasm.
"What's wrong, Lily?" Kathleen asked as Lily sat on her bed with her knees pulled up under her chin, watching the packing process.
Lily stared at her.
"You're awfully quiet," Dana said.
"And still," Olivia added with a smile. "Are you done packing already?"
Their questions, and concern, were too much. Flight seemed to be her only option.
"I … need go to the library," Lily said.
She unfolded her legs and bounded up off her bed.
"The library?" Olivia asked blankly. "Why? We don't have any homework due tomorrow – and that's the last day before the holiday!"
Lily shot out the door without replying. She practically ran through the common room, knocking Remus out of her way in her rush to get away from Gryffindor Tower.
Remus looked at his friends in surprise. "What's got her so upset?"
Sirius shrugged. "It's Lily. She's like that."
Peter grinned, but James frowned.
"Not all the time," he said slowly.
"Enough of it. Come on, guys, let's get back to the game."
Lily was quickly forgotten as the four boys restarted their game of Exploding Snap.
Lily realized almost as soon as she left the common room that she had no idea where to go. Her steps slowed as she walked through the quiet halls of the castle. While there was still plenty of time before curfew, most of the students were in their dormitories, packing for their trips home.
As the thought went through her head, Lily stopped and leaned back against the cool stone of the wall beside her. She sighed and closed her eyes, letting the strength of the wall support her. She slowly slid down it until she was sitting on the floor with her knees pulled up under her chin again. She buried her face in her knees and closed her eyes.
"Are you okay?"
Lily looked up to see Severus standing over her. "Hi," she said.
He sat down with her. "What's the matter?"
Lily shrugged. "I don't want to go home."
Severus exhaled. "Join the club."
Lily looked at him in surprise. "You don't want to go home?"
He gave a hollow laugh. "No."
"But … your family … is magical! You can –"
"No," he interrupted. "My mother is a witch, but my father is a … Muggle."
"Oh," Lily said quietly. "I didn't know."
He shrugged. "It's just … the way it is."
"But, still … at least they understand you."
"My mum does."
"That's more than I've got."
Severus turned to sit facing her. "Why don't you want to go home, Lily?"
Tears filled her eyes. "Petunia."
Severus rolled his eyes. "Why are you worried about her and what she thinks? She's just –"
"My sister," Lily interrupted. "She's my sister, and we've always been so close. Now, to have this between us … something that I can't control, something that I didn't even know about until a few months ago … It's just not fair."
"What is fair?" Severus asked, shifting to lean against the wall again.
They sat in silence for a moment, lost in their thoughts. Lily was the first to speak again.
"We can see each other over the holidays, right? Like we did over the summer?"
"Yeah," Severus said, his face lighting up. "Yeah, that's a great idea! We can meet at the park again."
"Yeah," Lily said with a smile. "It'll be great – I won't have to worry that this whole thing was a dream. I'll know that Hogwarts exists, and magic exists, even if I am home with my family, where there's no magic at all –"
"Shh!" Severus hissed.
Lily stopped talking and looked at him in confusion. Severus was looking past her, watching as someone approached. He scrambled to his feet; Lily did the same. She turned to look over her shoulder, where she saw two boys from Slytherin walking toward them.
"Hi, Severus," one of them said.
"Hi," he replied.
The other boys glanced at Lily, then looked back at their Housemate.
"All packed and ready to go home?" the second boy asked.
"Yes," Severus answered. "You?"
"Yes. I can't wait." The first boy grinned. "Mother and Father always have excellent holiday parties. I'm sure this year will be the best yet."
"No doubt," the second boy said. "Though, last year's will be tough to beat."
"I'll bet they can do it." The first boy smiled at Severus. "Well, we'll see you back in the common room."
The two boys walked away, and Lily looked at Severus.
"Who are they?"
"Walter Avery and Charles Mulciber," Severus said. "They're in our year."
Lily nodded slowly as understanding dawned. "That's why you shushed me, isn't it?"
"What do you mean?"
"I was talking about going home – about my family – and you made me stop. You didn't want your friends to know that my family are Muggles, did you?"
She nodded. "Okay, then. I guess I'll see you."
She turned to walk away, but Severus grabbed her sleeve to stop her.
"It's just … I wanted to protect you. I didn't want them to …"
He shrugged. "It's just better this way."
"Yeah," Lily said. "I guess it is."
She turned to walk away again. This time, Severus did not stop her.