The Debt

by Erik's Angel

Disclaimer: I am not, nor do I dare to imagine that I am JK Rowling. She created these characters and this universe. I just like to play with them. I mean no harm.

Summary: We know that Snape resents the fact that he owes his life to James. This story suggests what might have happened that night in their sixth year. Sirius makes a grave mistake, and it's up to James to save his enemy from death . . . or worse.

Author's Note: This fic was originally one of many that I had planned for a giant collection of short stories called The Marauders. That idea fell through, and so I'm publishing the individual pieces as stand-alone fics. Oh, and Natalie Dubarc is an original character - I created her to be Lily's best friend and Sirius's girlfriend in The Marauders. Don't flip out when she shows up. Finally, thanks must go out to my fabulous beta-reader, JK, for all her helpful suggestions and friendly support.

*****

And then, your father did something Snape could never forgive...
He saved his life.
- Albus Dumbledore in Sorcerer's Stone

"Lily, what was that letter you got this afternoon? The one that was sent by Muggle post?" Natalie asked her best friend as she jumped over a trick step on their way back to the Gryffindor common room from the Great Hall after dinner.

"It was from my older sister, Petunia," Lily replied, her green eyes flashing. "Mum makes her write to me. She usually tells me how much she hates me."

"Well, that's lovely," replied Natalie sarcastically, tossing her auburn hair. "Is she jealous?"

"Maybe. I'm not sure. You know my family...they're all Muggles. Mum and Dad are really proud of me, but Petunia...you know what she's like. I think she'd rather I just didn't exist. She hates anything that's even slightly out of the ordinary. And the bloke she's going out with, this Vernon Dursley, he'd be perfect for her. He's the biggest Muggle I've ever seen."

Natalie and Lily laughed. They were still giggling as they rounded the corner onto the Charms corridor and ran straight into something large.

"Sirius!" cried the girls simultaneously.

"Hello, you two." He grinned at them slyly. That could mean only one thing.

"Sirius, what have you been up to?" asked Natalie suddenly, eyeing him suspiciously. She knew him too well.

"Nothing much...just a little Padfoot mischief. And I've just given Snape a wonderful present." His words were lighthearted, and he was still smiling, but his eyes weren't quite as bright as they had been a second ago.

"You gave Snape -- a...a what?" asked Lily, taken aback.

"Well, he made me mad . . . said something awful about James. In return, I gave him exactly what he's always wanted," Sirius replied, and he no longer looked even remotely cheerful. His dark blue eyes were as angry as the girls had ever seen them. "You know how curious he's always been about where Remus goes every month. And so I just - "

"Sirius!" cried Lily.

"You didn't." Natalie breathed, horror-struck.

"It's the full moon!" Lily went on, starting to panic. "He'll go down there and . . . oh God! What . . . what have you done?"

And before Sirius could say a word in his defense, Lily went tearing down the hallway, Natalie at her heels.

The two of them made record time getting to Gryffindor Tower. As they ran up to the Fat Lady, Lily panted out the password ("poppycock") and the portrait swung wide open. Natalie and Lily went clambering through the portrait hole. When they reached the common room, James and Peter were sitting at a far table with Frank Longbottom and Bertha Jorkins, playing Exploding Snap.

James looked up and greeted the two girls jovially. "Lily, Natalie! Fancy joining -- " he stopped abruptly when he saw the panicked looks on their faces. "What's wrong? Lily . . . are you alright?" His brown eyes were full of concern. He stood up to take her arm.

"James, where's Remus?" asked Lily.

"He's gone. Visiting his grandmother in the hospital, I believe." James looked thoroughly confused, but all the more worried.

Lily shot Natalie a worried glance. That was their code for, He's in the Shrieking Shack. It's a full moon tonight, dummy.

"Er -- James?" said Lily in a shaky voice. "Can we talk to you for a second?"

"Of course," he said briskly, sensing that something was definitely wrong, and casting a sideways glance at Bertha, who had the greatest ear and memory for gossip in all of Hogwarts. He led them over to a more private area of the common room. Peter followed.

"What's going on?" James asked, urgency now in his voice.

"James," said Lily. She grabbed his arm and stared into his eyes, speaking quietly and swiftly, determined not to say more than she had to. "It's Sirius. Snape's after Remus."

James's eyes widened. He'd understood. "I was afraid of this. What time is it?"

Natalie spoke this time, her voice full of fear. "Just past sunset. The moon's already risen. James, you've got to do something!"

"And fast," he added. "I have to get the Cloak." He disappeared up the boys' staircase.

Peter still hadn't caught on. "What's going on? Where's James going? What's so serious?"

"Shh . . . Peter . . . later," said Natalie quickly, still looking at Bertha, who was getting suspicious.

No one could find out about this. If anything happened . . . if Snape were to die or get bitten . . . Natalie shuddered. All consequences for Sirius aside, Remus would never be able to forgive himself. Natalie glanced at Lily to find her looking ghostly pale. She placed a hand on Lily's shoulder in what she hoped was a comforting way.

And then, breaking their reverie, a bodiless voice whispered extremely softly in the girls' ears, "I solemnly swear I am up to no good." This was their cue. That was James's signal for: I'm here in the Cloak, and I need out of the portrait hole.

Lily and Natalie led the way out of the common room, followed by James in his Cloak, with Peter bringing up the rear.

On the other side of the Fat Lady, the three of them stood listening to James's retreating footsteps. Natalie looked at Lily. Her vivid green eyes were extremely worried. Natalie knew that she was desperately scared for James.

Natalie suddenly felt the need to take charge. "Peter," she said sharply, "you wait out here for James. He needs to get in without anyone knowing he's been gone. We don't want anyone thinking there's something wrong. He can just pretend he's been in the dormitory the whole time. If anyone comes by, pretend you're asleep." It was perfect. Most people would assume that he'd just forgotten the password and couldn't get in. And she couldn't think of a single Gryffindor who'd go out of their way to wake him up and let him in -- except perhaps Remus or James, but they were both a bit preoccupied at the moment.

Peter nodded curtly - it seemed he had finally realized what was going on - and Natalie led Lily, who had begun to cry softly, back inside the common room. Natalie did the best she could to comfort her friend . . . she'd never been very good at things like that. They were going to just have to wait impatiently for James's return. Or for Sirius's return. Natalie felt anger bubble up inside her at the thought of Sirius. How could he do something like this? Sure, he was angry, and he does things without thinking about them first . . . but to send a classmate to his death? She just couldn't understand it. As much as she loved him, and as much as she hated Snape, she knew that Sirius really had gone too far this time.

*****

James ran as fast as he could down to the Shrieking Shack. It was difficult with the Cloak on, because he could still be heard. And he definitely didn't want to fail to get to his destination. Too much was at stake.

The Whomping Willow came into view, and, just as it did, James saw Snape disappear down its passageway. James sprinted as hard as he could, and, before thinking what he was doing, picked up the long stick Snape had just used, threw off the Cloak, ducked down, narrowly missed getting clobbered by one of the tree's branches, and prodded the knot on the Willow's trunk. It stopped moving, and at that moment James heard a howl from deep within, quickly followed by a panicked yell. The Wolf knew that Snape was in there.

Fast as lighting, James ran into the passageway, grabbed Snape, who was rigid with fear and shock, by the back of his collar and dragged him out. He was almost to the exit when he saw the Wolf (for there was no longer much of Remus present) charging down the long tunnel towards them, obviously hungry.

Snape, who had recovered himself, clambered out the rest of the way. James realized with a start that the doorway out was wide open, and the werewolf just seemed to have noticed that too. James had to keep him from getting out, somehow. He thought about changing into Prongs, but quickly dismissed the idea. He couldn't pop in and out of his Animagus form like Sirius could - it took him a while. By then, the werewolf would definitely get him. Suddenly, James knew what he had to do. He closed the exit. He had to appeal to the human that he knew was in there, somewhere. He had to find Remus or die protecting the exit.

"Remus," James said quickly. "Moony. It's me, James. Listen to me. You are Remus Lupin. You're a student at Hogwarts." He was reaching him. "You're friends with me, Sirius, Peter, Lily, Natalie...you're a Gryffindor." There was a flicker of recognition in those eerily familiar gray eyes. "Dumbledore trusts you," James said, praying that the Wolf would stay away long enough. Praying that Remus could hold on. "Dumbledore would want you to stay here while I walk out and close the passage." Remus stared at him through the beast's eyes and, miraculously, lowered his head ever so slightly in deference. That was all the confirmation James needed. He opened the passageway and sprang out, quickly prodding the knot again and ducking away from the Willow. He snatched up his Cloak, and then collapsed on the grass, breathing hard.

Snape had gone. Probably to talk to Dumbledore. That was somewhat of a reassurance, though. James knew from experience that Hogwarts's somewhat unusual headmaster wouldn't punish any of them too severely. They might get detention, but they wouldn't be expelled.

And Dumbledore would keep Snape quiet. That was most important.

At this point, James was simply relieved that no one had died. If Remus had actually killed Snape. Even if the Wolf had been in control at the time . . . even if Sirius had been ultimately responsible . . . James knew that Remus would have never been able to forgive himself.

Slowly, James trudged back up toward the castle under the safety of his Cloak.

He really wasn't looking forward to dealing with his friends' inevitable questions at the moment. Nor was he looking forward to the conversation he was going to have with Sirius...which was bound to be as unpleasant as it would be unavoidable. At this point, all he wanted to do was punch his friend for doing something so stupid. But James thought, upon reflection, that attacking Sirius would not be the best way to go about this. There were going to be a lot of loose ends to tie up . . .

But he'd deal with all that tomorrow. All he wanted to do was sleep.

It had, after all, been a long night.

*****

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Thank you for reading,
Erik's Angel