"Gone?" whispered Charlotte.
Gómez gripped her arm. "Where?"
"We believe your students have been taken by Death Eaters," said Dumbledore very quietly.
"To… to… You-Know-Who?" asked Charlotte, her voice breaking. She looked at Remus for confirmation, and he nodded slowly.
"Then what are we standing around for? We must find them!"
"We don't know where Voldemort is currently hiding," replied Dumbledore calmly.
"There must be some way!" she cried out in a desperate voice. "A Tracking Spell, or…"
"They used a Portkey," Remus said. Only now had the truth of it completely sunk in. Had Andrej and Nikolai been kidnapped by Death Eaters – or gone of their own free will?
"Were there any signs of a struggle?" Gómez asked suddenly, mirroring his thoughts. Charlotte gaped at him.
"Pablo, you can't think… they can't have… Remus…?" She turned to him, and there was a pleading expression in her eyes.
"Their beds were neatly made, they seem to have left the dormitory of their own free will." His head suddenly felt very heavy. It could not be true…
"I could not detect any sign of a struggle here, either," confirmed Dumbledore. "And remember, Remus, the woman was talking about an arrangement to meet outside."
"What woman?" Charlotte asked immediately. She still had her wand drawn, and looked ready to run off after them in pursuit.
"We witnessed an encounter of one of our Order members, who is now dead, with a Death Eater," Dumbledore explained. Remus was glad that the other man had taken the matter into his hands. He didn't feel as though he could speak. "The Death Eater was a woman who spoke of taking someone from a school, but due to certain circumstances…" Dumbledore glanced at Remus, "we were alerted to the possibility that she meant this school. And it seems we were right."
"Remus," Charlotte whispered, even as the truth seemed to sink in. She looked utterly lost. "It can't be true…"
"I think she was Andrej's and Nikolai's aunt," Remus said heavily.
They stood in silence.
"Imperius," said Gómez suddenly, and Charlotte's eyes lit up.
"Yes! That's it, they must have been under the influence of it since Christmas…"
"It is a possibility," Dumbledore allowed calmly. "However, we will still have to find them first."
Remus had never before felt so helpless. To think that he was standing here, in perfect safety, while two of his students were being dragged to –
"Dumbledore," he said suddenly, "do you think she might bring them to her house in Moscow first?"
"Yes!" exclaimed Charlotte again. "We must go there at once." She and Gómez hurried inside to get dressed, while Remus and Dumbledore looked uncomfortably at each other. The old wizard did not look very convinced, and secretly, Remus understood. But they had to do something.
"Do you believe it was Imperius?" Dumbledore asked quietly, and Remus clenched his teeth.
"I have to."
Dumbledore nodded, and moments later they were rejoined by Charlotte and Gómez, who had left Angela and Nora in charge of the children.
They went to Moscow using an illegal Portkey created by Dumbledore, just as the Death Eater must have done; Remus wondered whether the Ministry would raise trouble, but Dumbledore probably knew how to avoid being seen.
Remus didn't dare to hope as they stood on the Red Square, watching Dumbledore perform a Tracking Spell. He knew the other two, like him, were forcing themselves not to marvel at the ease with which Dumbledore spoke such an advanced spell; now was not the time for admiration of a superior scholar.
"There is a faint trace," Dumbledore finally said in a very low voice, opening his eyes. "They must have left already."
"Faint trace better than no trace," grumbled Gómez, and they followed as Dumbledore led the way. The problem with Tracking Spells was that you couldn't Apparate, and so it took them another half hour to arrive at the block of flats where the boys' aunt – or whoever she was – lived. Dumbledore, who had been walking faster and faster the closer they got, hurried up the steps to a certain door, which Charlotte kicked open unceremoniously. No Alohomora, Remus knew, would have expressed the aggression and anguish she felt better.
The flat was empty, of course. He hadn't been entertaining much hope.
"Search for clues – anything," said Gómez in a hoarse voice Remus had never heard from him before. They turned the flat upside down, but there was nothing. Of course there was nothing; the woman Remus had seen in Yasmina's Imagicus Spell was not one to leave clues.
"There must be a way to find them somewhere, there MUST be!" exclaimed Charlotte, and there was genuine fear behind her aggressive tone.
Remus looked at Dumbledore. "What about Snape?"
Dumbledore nodded. "We should go to Hogwarts."
"Snape? What about him?" asked Charlotte, confused.
"No time," said Dumbledore as they hurried outside again, towards the Russian Ministry. Soon they were passing through the Hogwarts gates and hurrying up the path towards the castle. Minerva met them at the entrance and communicated with one look that nothing had happened here; not that Remus had expected it. Dumbledore asked her to fetch Snape from the staff room, and they went up to the Headmaster's office in silence. Remus could see that Charlotte was controlling herself with a supreme effort; he knew she found it unbearable to be here when they should actually be off in pursuit – but where to?
"What happened?" Snape asked by way of a greeting as he came through the door. He cast Charlotte and Gómez a furtive look, narrowed his eyes at Remus, and finally fixed his gaze on Dumbledore.
"Two students from the Centre for Lycanthropic Children have been taken to Voldemort," said Dumbledore.
For a moment, Snape looked too stunned to speak. "Two werewolf children?" He glanced at Remus, who nodded.
"They were taken by a Death Eater we have never seen before," Dumbledore continued while Gómez was still looking at Snape with a frown on his face, and Charlotte looked as though she was beginning to understand. "A Russian woman in her forties."
"I don't know her," said Snape, obviously uncomfortable about being exposed in front of two people he didn't know, but seeming to realize the urgency of the matter. "But there are a number of Death Eaters all over Europe that most of us have never seen." He turned to Remus. "Why would she take two of your students?"
"We don't know yet." Remus gritted his teeth even as he could see that Snape was coming to the same conclusion as him. Of course, he won't be at all surprised…
"Well, I can't go there now without looking suspicious," said Snape. "I will have to wait until he calls me." He rubbed his left forearm in a reflexive motion that he probably wasn't even aware of. "What do you want me to find out?"
"Find out whether they are under Imperius or not, if you can," said Dumbledore. "Whether they went of their own free will, and whether there is a chance to get them back."
Charlotte slowly sank into a chair, her face white.
Snape nodded and left the room without another word. Gómez turned to Remus. "You trust that man?"
Remus looked at the door that had just closed behind his onetime bête noire, and nodded.
Four days passed until Snape was called to Voldemort. They were the worst four days Remus had gone through since he had found out about Lily and James. The uncertainty almost killed him, and he knew that the others felt the same.
He admired Charlotte, who had somehow managed to break the news to everyone at breakfast the following day. She was very pale, and he knew she hadn't slept; but her pallor was nothing next to Leonid's, who slumped back in his chair and looked as though he might faint.
He didn't know, later, how they had got through these days. They followed their schedule as usual, but neither students nor teachers were really listening to anything that was being said in class, their ears always trying to pick up the faintest sound that would indicate a messenger of any kind. Leonid was bundle of nerves by Friday night; he had evaded everyone during the week, and when questioned, said he didn't know anything. Remus didn't believe that anymore, but he was too tired of asking – and too scared of finding out the truth he was already anticipating.
It was a very silent assembly that greeted Dumbledore on Friday night. Nobody had gone to sleep yet; they were all sitting together in the Common Room. María had fled to the piano that stood in her dormitory, but had left the door open, and a simple, melancholy melody was floating into the room, reflecting their collective mood.
Jorge got up to get María as Dumbledore sat down, looking very grave. When María came through the door, she took one look at him and asked, in a quiet voice:
"They're not coming back, are they?"
Dumbledore slowly shook his head, resting his gaze on Remus. "Our informant is quite sure they are not under Imperius."
There was a collective gasp. María grabbed Jorge's hand, who steadied her; Nora laid her head on Olivier's shoulder, looking close to tears. Felix, meanwhile, looked at Leonid in concern. All of the colour had gone from the boy's face, and Remus knew that it was only at this moment that he really understood that his friends were gone.
"I don't believe it…" whispered Charlotte. But Remus saw that she, too, had already known.
"I'm afraid there is nothing we can do," said Dumbledore quietly and stood up. He looked extremely uncomfortable. "I urge you all to go to sleep." And without another word, he left the room. After a few moments' silence, Charlotte followed.
"I'm so sorry…" whispered Leonid, his face ashen. Nora got up at once and sat down next to him on the couch.
"It's not your fault, Leonid."
"Yes, it is." His voice was now barely audible. "They told me about the things their aunt had said… I just… I never believed they'd go with her, or that she belonged to… to…" He burst into tears, and Nora put her arms around him.
"You couldn't have known," she said in a soothing voice. "None of us would have wanted to believe it…"
Remus sank back in his chair. How right she was.
"Charlotte, open the door."
Silence. Everyone had gone to sleep; but Remus knew that Charlotte hadn't gone to bed, that she probably wouldn't sleep all night.
Finally - the small 'click' indicating that the door had been magically unlocked from inside. He touched the door handle and felt the familiar pull caused by the Mutatio Habitationis Charm Charlotte had cast on her room –
– and next thing he knew, he was in the middle of a thunderstorm. Heavy rain splashed into his face, and the wind blew into his robes. Raising his arms protectively over his head, he squinted, looking around for Charlotte.
She was sitting in the middle of a wide field, her legs crossed, her head down. It looked like she was soaked to the bone.
Remus raised his wand. The storm was so loud that he had to bellow the words: "Finite Incantatem!" Abruptly, the rain stopped, and the landscape slowly receded back into a normal room – for the first time, Remus saw what Charlotte's quarters really looked like.
He quickly took in the red curtains, the pictures on the wall and the old mahogany desk before his gaze rested on Charlotte, sitting on the floor between the bed and the desk. She still didn't look up. Remus crossed the room without a word and, taking a large towel from the bathroom, came back and wrapped her in it. Only then did she look up at him. Her lips were almost blue, and her teeth were chattering slightly. Reflexively, she wrapped the towel closer around herself. Remus sat down on the bed.
After a while, she got up and went to the bathroom to change. When she came back, Remus saw that her face hadn't only been wet with rain.
He stood up and came closer. Instinctively, she shied back; he stepped even closer and put his arms around her. She tensed; but then, finally relaxed into his embrace. For a while he held her like that, Charlotte sniffling occasionally. When they finally sat down on the bed, her face was dry.
"So," Remus said after yet another while, and his voice sounded strange to him after the silence. "You were thinking you would improve the situation by killing yourself?"
Charlotte turned around to look at him, her eyes wide, and Remus quickly checked himself. But she needed telling.
"I... I'm sorry," she said in a small voice. "Sometimes I get so lost in my feelings... I should have been down there with everyone..."
"Charlotte." He laid a hand on her arm, and this time she didn't shy away. "Nobody's blaming you for wanting a bit of time to yourself to think. We all need that now." Though if this is the way she thinks things through, I'd better not leave her alone again. "But we need you to take care of yourself, Charlotte. The school needs you. The children need you."
Charlotte looked down. Suddenly, she pulled away, stood up and moved to the window in a few quick strides, turning her back on him.
"The school needs me, Remus?" Her voice was low and bitter. "Great Headmistress I've been. No idea about my students' feelings."
So she was blaming herself for everything. Well, at least that was a concept he was familiar with. Very briefly, the thought that he would now assume his friends' usual role amused him.
"No, Remus. Don't tell me I couldn't have known. Don't tell me how much I've done for them. I had no idea what they were, I didn't want to know. All I wanted was a big happy school where everyone was alike." She sounded disgusted with herself.
"What they were?" He frowned. "Do you mean to say that was there all along?"
There was a moment's silence. "No. At least I hope not. I mean that I didn't care where they were really coming from, whether they were having problems integrating themselves. I didn't care for their feelings when I took them to England and forced them to learn this language."
Oh. So that was it... "You had your reasons. You wanted them to grow up in the world's largest wizarding community to increase their –"
"Yes, I bloody well had my reasons," snapped Charlotte. She was facing him now, and her eyes flashed in anger. Remus was taken aback for a moment – he'd seen her like this, but it had never been directed at him – until he remembered that she was actually angry at herself.
"But you know what, Remus? The end doesn't justify the means. I knew that, but forgot it temporarily, or didn't apply it to this situation, who knows? Who cares? The point is that I was wrong trying to mould everyone into my idea of a happy little student."
The energy behind her outburst left her as quickly as it had come, and she slumped down on the armchair opposite him. "How could I have been so blind? How could I not have seen the signs?" And she buried her face in her hands again.
Remus sighed. As much as he admired this woman, there was some truth in what she had said. "We all should have seen the signs, I suppose. But we just thought that the boys – " Somehow he couldn't bring himself to say their names. "We thought they needed a longer time than the others to adapt, that they just weren't as sociable as the others. We did what we could, Charlotte. We acted with the best intentions, we made mistakes, and now we have to learn from them."
Charlotte slowly shook her head. "The point is," she said from behind her hands, "that the whole concept is wrong."
"The concept is not wrong," Remus insisted. "It just needs some thinking through."
She grunted. "I hate moderates."
"I dislike extremes."
There was a muffled sound, which Remus hoped was a weak laugh, and she removed her hands. "Do you really not think that I've screwed everything up?" she asked, her voice as small as a child's.
"I think you've created a wonderful place for children who were mostly without hope. And certain adults too, I might add." He smiled. "Doesn't sound like screwing up to me."
"Do you think the others are in danger of the same?" she continued, and it sounded as though all her happiness depended on his answer.
"I think the danger is there," he replied truthfully. "Especially now that we know that Voldemort –" She flinched slightly, which he ignored – "knows about our school. But we'll be more alert in future."
She nodded slowly. Then, biting her lip, she said, even more quietly so that her voice was barely above a whisper, "I keep thinking of what they're doing now. I mean, I can't really picture it... not that I want to, really..."
"If only I hadn't underestimated the danger. If I thought about it at all, I'd think, 'no, they couldn't possibly harm my students,' and I certainly never considered... students of mine following them of their own free will. I mean..." She shook her head again, almost in despair. "Damn it, Remus, they're just children."
He nodded. "Yes, the great 'if only'..." If only they had considered something like this when he had been young... if only he had learned from that experience and considered it this time. And he realized with a small pang that, in fact, he was much more to blame than Charlotte.
"In the end we're all just human," he said, almost to himself. And then added, with a small smile: "Or, you know. As close as it gets."
She groaned. "Shut up, Remus." But he knew that he had finally broken her depression.
15th of June
I hope you and your students are well.
I am glad to inform you that Minister Fudge has finally agreed to a date for the hearing we requested. It has been set to Monday, the 24th. Please meet me in the Entrance Hall of the Ministry of Magic at ten to nine on Monday morning. Sirius will not be there, of course, and I have asked him to move to a location we are unfamiliar with – just in case we are questioned.
All my best to Miss Merlot.
If Remus felt a slight, illogical apprehension about leaving the school on that Monday morning, it was nothing compared to the anxious looks he received when he got up from the dinner table. They had always been a close-knit group, but the disappearance of Andrej and Nikolai had made them even more of a … family, he supposed.
"I'll be back for lunch," he said, hoping it was true. You never knew with the bureaucrats at the Ministry; he had already asked Pablo to fill in for him if he actually managed to miss his class at one.
He arrived at the Ministry exactly ten minutes to nine. Dumbledore was waiting for him in the hall.
"How are you? And your colleagues and students?" the old man asked, surveying Remus over his half-moon spectacles. Remus looked away. He couldn't bear Dumbledore's scrutiny sometimes.
"We're fine. As fine as we can be, I guess."
Dumbledore nodded, and thankfully asked nothing more.
There were a large number of people waiting in front of the dungeon room when they arrived. Remus had thought Fudge wanted to keep it to a small circle, and Dumbledore's raised eyebrows seemed to confirm this; but it looked as though word had leaked out somehow. Remus recognized several people he knew from school, who either waved at him or eyed him anxiously.
"Break it up, break it up," called a booming voice, and a large wizard in violet robes who looked like Fudge's personal security guard tried to make his way to the door. The Minister followed right behind him, trying to look imposing, but looking rather small next to this man.
"Minister, is it true that Professor Dumbledore has new information regarding the rumours of You-Know-Who's return?" asked a gaunt, pale-faced man holding a Quick-Quotes Quill, and Remus suddenly recognized the woman next to him as Begonia Biggens, the Daily Prophet reporter who had written an article about the Centre back in October. She too was eyeing him curiously while her own Quick-Quotes Quill was jotting down notes, and Remus looked away quickly.
"This is a secret meeting," called Fudge over the noise of the crowd, standing on tiptoe to see the reporter. Remus had to suppress a smile; Fudge was looking as ridiculous as usual, not to mention his nonsensical statement when it was obvious that the meeting was not quite as secret as he'd hoped. "I cannot allow anyone but members of the Wizengamot and those giving evidence inside. Please leave."
"Minister, we have a right to see this information! We have a right to know if You-Know-Who has returned!" trilled the voice of a woman Remus couldn't see.
"And you will be informed if that is the case!" replied Fudge, now sounding rather agitated. "Please make way for the members of the Wizengamot! I will make a statement once the hearing is over, if you wish you can stay here and wait."
The crowd gave something like a collective grumble, but they moved aside obediently. As Remus moved past them, he caught the eyes of Mary Callaghan, a Ravenclaw he had dated in fourth year, and he smiled. She gave him a small smile in return, then looked away quickly. Standing with the Aurors, I see. No surprises there…
It took nearly five minutes for all of the Wizengamot to file into the dungeon and settle down. Fudge's bulky security guard locked the door and put an Impenetrable Charm on it, as well as a Silencing Charm on the walls, before they started.
"So, Dumbledore, let's see this 'evidence' which you mentioned," said Fudge, skipping all further formalities. He looked quite dishevelled and tired. Well, it's a tough job constantly inventing stories that explain the odd disappearances and occurrences, Remus thought dryly.
"Very well," said Dumbledore and took out Yasmina's wand. "I must ask you all to come to the centre of the room, and I will attempt to extend the charm to all present."
"What is this? What charm?" asked Fudge, looking wary, as the thirty-odd wizards and witches left their seats and came forward. Remus knew this was not the whole Wizengamot, but he was surprised that so many were here at all; he would have thought that Fudge wouldn't give so much importance to what Dumbledore had to say. But then, he supposed, the Minister's fear of the other wizard greatly outweighed his disrespect.
"This is Yasmina Carter's wand," replied Dumbledore. "I… confiscated it after her body was found by the Muggle police."
"What? Dumbledore, you had no right to do so!" Fudge's face was taking on a purplish colour, as usual. Dumbledore looked just as unimpressed as Remus was; Fudge was very predictable.
"I had to, Cornelius. This evidence might not have been found otherwise."
Remus didn't bother to suppress a smile this time, as he was sure everyone was staring transfixed at Dumbledore. He saw several people looking at each other, raising their eyebrows at Dumbledore's implied assessment of Fudge's abilities.
"And what of Yasmina Carter – you never told us she had been found," continued Fudge in a stubborn voice, apparently choosing to ignore the insult.
"You would have been alerted to the finding had you been following the activities of Muggle police, as I recommended you do, Cornelius," said Dumbledore calmly.
Fudge spluttered for a bit, then seemed to reach the conclusion that he'd much rather see what Yasmina's wand held. "What is it, then?"
"Imagicus," Dumbledore replied. "Just before Yasmina was killed by Death Eaters, she recorded her last minutes with the Imagicus spell."
"Killed by Death Eaters? Preposterous!" cried Fudge, and Remus sighed. "Another cock-and-bull story with the aim of unsettling the wizarding population, uprooting all we have –"
"Cornelius," Dumbledore cut in, quietly but firmly. "I would not have come here if I didn't think that this evidence were enough for you. I realize that much is needed to convince you of the truth, but as you very well know, Imagicus cannot be imitated."
Fudge looked too stunned to speak, while a rotund man standing next to him nodded slowly. "He's right, Minister… it cannot be imitated. We would see if it were a fake."
Fudge gulped, then walked forward and stretched out his hand. "Let me see that, Dumbledore."
Dumbledore handed over the wand without another word, and for a moment Remus had to suppress an irrational fear that Fudge would snap the wand in half. But he was merely looking it over, pretending to be an expert at examining wands, and finally held it up high. "Imagico!"
Remus had thought the hardest part would be seeing Peter again; but he found himself staring at the other Death Eater instead, taking in her every movement and word, not comprehending how that kind of person could have appealed to Andrej and Nikolai, how this cold-hearted woman could have taken his students away. How they could have failed to notice…
The scene faded away, and he snapped back into reality. There was complete silence in the dungeon for a few minutes. Then there was a clatter when Fudge dropped Yasmina's wand.
"It can't be true…" whispered a woman somewhere behind Remus, and he was starkly reminded of Charlotte two months earlier. Has it been two months already?
"Peter Pettigrew," said the man next to Fudge, his voice no more than a croak. "Fudge, you realize what that means…"
Fudge, who had been staring at the wand at his feet, looked up. "This is too unbelievable to be true. We will find out how you tampered with that wand, Dumbledore…" He trailed off, and Remus thought he could actually hear Dumbledore groan very quietly.
"You can examine it all you like, Cornelius," he said, and Remus admired him once more for the calmness with which he regularly bore Fudge's stupidity. "I assure you you will find nothing, because nothing has been tampered with. Lord Voldemort –" there was a collective gasp, but Dumbledore continued relentlessly, "Lord Voldemort has returned, and Peter Pettigrew is a Death Eater and very much alive."
"But – but he was killed by Sirius Black!" said somebody to Remus' left, and he knew it was time for him to speak.
"He faked his own death," he said, his own voice sounding heavy to himself. "Peter Pettigrew was Secret Keeper for Lily and James Potter, and he betrayed them to Voldemort. When Sirius Black tracked him down, it was… Pettigrew… who blasted the street apart and killed the Muggles, because he knew that Sirius would be blamed."
There was another, very long silence.
"How can you prove it?" asked Fudge, finally.
"I can't. I saw Pettigrew with my own eyes two years ago, but he escaped. All you have is my word, and this piece of evidence." He pointed at the wand still lying at Fudge's feet. Of course this wouldn't be enough – he had been foolish to hope. But it was a start.
At least they're not asking what that woman meant about taking somebody, he thought. He didn't think he would bear to talk about that in front of these people.
"And Black?" asked a grey-haired woman to Dumbledore's left.
"Sirius Black is currently in hiding," said Dumbledore. "Where, we do not know, but he keeps in contact with us."
Another gasp from the assembly. Fudge was staring at him wide-eyed.
"All this time you've been in contact with Sirius Black," he whispered. "I had my suspicions about that, but really, Dumbledore, you've gone too far this time…"
"I am convinced of his innocence, Cornelius. I did not inform you because I knew I needed evidence before you would believe me. You have it now; whether you choose to believe an obviously accurate piece of evidence is entirely your choice." He smiled benevolently, a smile that Remus knew would have driven him mad in Fudge's place. "If we are not needed here anymore, I would like to go back to my school."
And I to mine, thought Remus.
"What am I supposed to tell those people outside?" asked Fudge. It sounded as though he was asking himself.
"That is also entirely your choice," was Dumbledore's unnerving reply. They made their way through the small crowd of people inside, who were all still staring at them, and through the large crowd of people outside, who shoved and pushed and bombarded them with questions. Miraculously, they reached the upper floor without having spoken one more word.
"Tell me, Albus," said Remus as they stepped from the lift into the Great Hall. "Is it really impossible for you to fake Imagicus?"
Dumbledore smiled, his eyes twinkling. "I have never tried to find out," he replied, and left it at that. They said goodbye, and Dumbledore stepped into a fireplace and was gone in an instant. Remus was about to leave through the Visitors' Entrance when a woman's voice called his name.
He turned around to see Miss Taylor, secretary at the Werewolf Registry, hurrying towards him. She looked slightly breathless, and he couldn't quite decide whether it was from running or addressing him.
"Miss Taylor," he greeted her amiably. "How are you doing?"
"Fine, I'm fine," she said. "I hope you're well, and everyone at the school?"
"We're fine, thanks."
They stood around awkwardly for several moments – she was definitely blushing, he thought – until she spoke again.
"I was going to write to you and Miss Merlot, but I hadn't got round to it yet." She blushed again at his questioning glance, and he wondered whether all male werewolves had such an effect on her. "Mr Foddersworth has retired, and there's a new head of office," she said.
His eyes must have lit up, because she smiled. "I didn't think he would still retire while I lived," he said. "Who's the new head of office?"
"It's one Mrs Harcourt, who was at the Department of Magical Catastrophes before." Miss Taylor lowered her voice, adopting a confidential tone. "She told me she didn't get on with her boss, so she asked to be transferred. She was a bit shocked at first to find herself at the Werewolf Registry, apparently, but she seems to be settling in well, and my impression of her is quite good."
Remus had to smile at Miss Taylor telling him all these details; it was almost as though they were old friends. "Well, that is certainly good to hear."
"Yes, isn't it? Mrs Harcourt has already asked to meet you and Miss Merlot, she thinks the Centre for Lycanthropic Children is a really good idea." Miss Taylor seemed to be more and more concentrating on his eyes that on their conversation, and he knew he had to get out of there.
"Well, please tell her that we'll be in touch," he replied, moving towards the entrance ever so slightly. "We can make an appointment to meet here sometime next week, perhaps." He hated coming here, but it was better than risking another negative experience for the children.
"I'll do that," said Miss Taylor, and before she could say anything else that seemed to be on her mind, Remus quickly said goodbye and left the Ministry. Very taken with werewolves indeed…
He got back to the school just after the end of morning classes, and found Sirius waiting for him at the front door.
"What are you doing here?" he asked as he clapped his friend on the shoulder. "You were supposed to be at a hiding place we didn't know."
"I beg to differ. I was supposed to be somewhere you wouldn't expect me to be." Sirius grinned. "How did it go?"
"Oh well, you know Fudge. I think we convinced lots of people from the Wizengamot, though." Remus looked around. "Listen, you shouldn't be here. I've only told Charlotte about you so far…"
"Oh, don't worry, they're all in the garden playing Quidditch. Charlotte was gardening when I last checked…"
Remus smiled, shaking his head. "You really do things properly, don't you?"
"One becomes used to being a shifty person," Sirius commented nonchalantly, and Remus laughed. "Introduce me to Charlotte, will you?"
They walked around the house, Sirius staying behind Remus until they were sure that everyone was involved in the Quidditch match except Charlotte, who was just planting seeds into an empty flowerbed.
"Ah, there you are!" She looked up; her face flushed from bending down and her hands dirty, and gave Remus the most cheerful smile he had seen from her in two months. Then she saw Sirius and gaped slightly, but then smiled at him. "Finally brought your infamous friend, I see."
Sirius looked slightly awkward as he stepped forward and shook Charlotte's outstretched hand, which she had wiped clean on her apron. "Charlotte," he said. "I've heard only good things about you."
"Well, I can't say the same of you, I'm afraid," she said, and he laughed. "You look very different from those photos the Prophet still publishes."
"Thanks, I guess." He grinned. Then, after a few moments of silence, he said: "I'm very sorry about what happened, Charlotte."
She gave a small smile, which was both sad and grateful. "Well, at least there's one good thing that came of it. How did the hearing go?" she addressed Remus, who had been watching their exchange silently. He knew how Sirius felt – he was glad about the evidence that proved Sirius' innocence, but he wished they had come across it in another way.
"Quite well, I suppose. Fudge is an ineffective idiot, but even he can't deny what he saw."
Sirius and Charlotte nodded, and Remus had to smile at the identical grim expressions on their faces.
"Well, I'd better be off," Sirius said, finally. "I'll see you on Sunday, perhaps."
"You don't have to leave," said Charlotte. "I'm sure the others would be happy to meet you." She grinned. "Or see Snuffles again."
Sirius raised his eyebrows and looked at Remus, who was just as astonished as his friend. Charlotte laughed. "Oh, come on, you didn't think I wouldn't put two and two together after you told me about the Animagus transformations?"
"You told her about the –" Sirius frowned, then shrugged, and Transformed without another word. They could hear a shout of "It's Snuffles!" as he ran towards the Quidditch field, and they smiled.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that," said Charlotte.
"It's all right, he knows that he can trust you." He looked down at the flowerbed. "What are you planting?"
"Lupins." She grinned and tossed him a packet of seeds, and he laughed and crouched down.
"Since when do we have so many brooms?" he asked, pointing to the lively match at the other end of the garden, where at least twelve people were in the air.
"Take a closer look at who's sitting with Teri over there." Charlotte's voice was full of suppressed excitement, and he followed her pointer to see a woman sitting next to the Charms teacher. He could only see the back of her, but the mass of blond hair piled up on top of her head looked familiar.
"Is that Hildegard Pallas?"
"Yep. She came by this morning after you left. Brought a couple of brooms she still had 'lying around', apparently, lots of books and Potions ingredients she 'never used', and a more or less definite promise of permanent support. I think she fell in love with the kids when she saw them."
"I can't blame her." He smiled. "That's great news."
She looked up again from the flowerbed to fix him with an earnest look. "How are you doing, Remus? Honestly." He gave a questioning frown, and she shrugged. "I just feel that I've been a bit absorbed in my own grief, and never took the time to ask how you were. And you never say anything by yourself until I've poked you about twenty times."
He smiled. "I'm English, Mademoiselle."
"That doesn't answer my question."
"No, it doesn't." He chuckled when she rolled her eyes, then sighed. "I'm doing all right. Still… uncomprehending, I guess, but the initial shock has numbed a bit."
She nodded. "We need to take care not to become too numb."
"I don't think there's a danger of that, with Olivier and Nora around." Their 'Alpha couple' had started a discussion about what had happened, two weeks after the boys' disappearance, an initiative Remus had been very thankful for. "But we should make sure to always encourage discussions about it."
She took another long look at him, then smiled. "Have I told you yet how lucky we are to have you here?"
"You have, and if you do so one more time, my English heart will implode from all the emotion assaulting it."
When she laughed out loud, he suddenly realized how much he had missed that sound.
"Seriously," he said as they got up and walked towards the Quidditch field, "I don't think you realize who's the lucky one here."