Not a week had gone by since the end of term. Thursday morning had not quite dawned when Dumbledore apparated just outside of the entrance to Azkaban. Despite the time of year, he felt immediately chilled to the bone. All colour seemed to be removed from the place, from the lack of plant life – or, indeed, any form of natural life – on the ground; to the thick, bare, windowless walls that shot straight up and covered everything else from sight; to the grey sky and sea.

A human guard was waiting for him, wand in hand, standing in military precision. He was a large fellow who wore an emotionless expression on his blunt features and was clad in the standard grey robes of his uniform. Dumbledore handed over his wand for checking. The guard examined it, before giving an imperceptible nod. The huge, dark metal doors began to open with a low scratching sound.

They walked along long, angular corridors – all windowless, with only a few narrow doors along the way. Despite himself, Dumbledore felt a nagging of claustrophobia. He was glad to finally reach the staffroom, where all the human guards, who were not currently on duty, sat huddled together. The room was only marginally warmer than the rest of the place, but there was the occasional splash of colour from the few personal possessions lying about – mugs, photographs, a book or two.

"Hello, Professor. You were asking about a letter?" said the administrative officer Dumbledore had owled – a scraggly older man with scrunched up features.

"Yes, indeed. I found out recently that the letter Sirius Black received shortly before his demise might have come from a Hogwarts student – one of the younger years, at that. I would like to have a look at it, please." Dumbledore wanted to make sure they were reminded that he was here as the headmaster, and not the Chief Warlock.

"Not sure if I can help you with that, Professor, sir."

Dumbledore pulled out a piece of folded parchment. "Here is the warrant which allows me to look at it. I shall, of course, leave it in your custody – if it is considered evidence."

"No, sir, that's not it. You see, there is no letter. None that we could find, that is. I wish you'd asked first, before coming here. Would've saved you the trip." He shivered, as if he could not imagine anything better than simply being away from where he was.

"I do not understand. Black received a letter days before his death – even the Daily Prophet reported it."

"I'm not saying he didn't. Matter of fact, I was the one who first received it – and had the dementors deliver it to him. But… we didn't find it in his cell when we were preparing it for the next prisoner. Matter of fact, we didn't find much of anything there…"

He went on to explain that Sirius had probably kept the letter on his person, which prompted more questions from Dumbledore. The answers he received added up to a picture he was liking less and less.

"You did not check the body?" he asked, already suspecting the answer he would get.

The guards shifted uncomfortably, directing all their gazes at the large fellow who had seen Dumbledore inside.

"I… That is, we, left it to the dementors. No one requested Black's remains – we did send the request, of course. But as the body was left for us to dispose of, we left if to the dementors to throw into the sea, as we always do in such cases," he explained.

"I see…" Dumbledore hoped his irritation was not already showing. "Let me rephrase that. Did anyone, at any point, see Sirius Black's body?"

A telling silence was his answer.

"So let me see if I understood correctly: you were informed by the dementors that Black had passed away, is that correct?"

"Yes, Professor—"

"After this, how exactly did you proceed? Did you immediately send the announcement to the ministry, asking if there was someone to request the body?"

"Well…" one of the guards began hesitantly. "We knew from the dementors that Black's condition had begun to deteriorate. And we did see him – a couple days earlier. He was barely hanging on, Professor. There's no way that he was faking that—"

"And then, the dementors told us he was, er, gone. It's not easy to communicate with them, you see?" another guard continued, a pale, colourless woman with her hair pulled into a tight bun. "Sometimes, prisoners who lose their minds can become, er, catatonic. But we do always check—"

"And we did with Black as well!" the first guard interjected. "I, myself, cast the spell—"

"Which spell would that be, Mr – Berrycloth?" Dumbledore vaguely remembered the name from having known him as a student at Hogwarts some years ago.

"Homenum revelio, of course, Professor."

"I see…" It seemed, Dumbledore's fears had been justified.

"Well, unless he really is an animagus, that should've been enough." The guard sounded defensive. "And who could've possibly guessed such a thing?"

Who, indeed. Dumbledore sighed. The order of events had become painfully clear, and required no further questioning. If Black really was an animagus – and it seemed the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn by now – then he would not have responded to the human-presence revealing spell if he was in his animagus form, even had he still been alive. The dementors would have tossed him – in animal form – into the sea – after everyone had refused to take custody of his supposed remains.

He next requested to be shown Black's former cell. There were not many humans employed in Azkaban. In fact, there were only about half a dozen, and none of them were keen on making more trips towards the prison cells – where the dementors were to be found – than absolutely necessary. It was with ill humour that they consented to lead Dumbledore to the cell Sirius used to inhabit.

There were no answers to be found there, just as the guards had told him. The cell – a small, dark room, almost entirely bare except for the most basic necessities – contained no personal possessions and no signs that someone had lived there.

"There used to be some… er, scribbles on the walls. Not an uncommon thing in the cells of long-time inmates," the guard hastened to add. "They were removed during the cleaning process."

Without dignifying this with another response, Dumbledore requested to be shown out of Azkaban.

Amelia had been reluctant to reveal to him the identity of the person who had written to Black, Dumbledore thought with a heavy heart as they walked back the way he had come in. But as soon as the news broke that Black was still alive, and had been sighted at Hogwarts, of all places, she had deemed it necessary to tell him of young Harry Potter's wish to contact his godfather. It had come as a most disturbing surprise to Dumbledore, who, until that moment, had still been harbouring the hope that Black was indeed dead and someone else has simply been masquerading as him, in order to protect their true identity.

But Harry had sent Black a letter – telling him what? Something that led to his sudden ill-health, at any rate. It still seemed inconceivable that after exposure to dementors for over a decade, after suffering such ill-health that the guards had easily believed him dead, he had found the strength to make it out of the sea alive.

Dumbledore wilted against the wall of the corridor, as a dementor passed them. Had he already forgotten how full of surprises Black had been? he thought despairingly. From the very first day he had met the boy – the day he had been sorted into Gryffindor – Black had exceeded all expectations placed on him. Especially compared to the people guarding him, an uncharitable part of Dumbledore's mind whispered. He remembered them – all former students of his. None of them could have matched Black's brilliance…

~HP~

After concluding his visit to Azkaban, Dumbledore headed to his appointment with a former student of his. Under other circumstances, this might have been a pleasant interlude, calling up fond memories of the past, despite the unfortunately modest living conditions of the former student. However, these were anything but ordinary circumstances.

He apparated in an essentially uninhabited spot in the region of the Black Mountains, not far from the English border. The tiny cottage, buried in the woods, still looked the same from a little distance away as it had when he had first visited it, so many years ago, barely discernible if you did not know to look for it. On closer inspection, it was showing a lot more wear and tear, from the chipped paint on the door, to the broken off roof tiles.

Dumbledore's reminiscences were interrupted by the voices coming from inside the cottage. It seemed, someone else was visiting Remus as well. Strange, considering he had been expected. Once he knocked and was let in, the mystery cleared up. Apparently, Remus had received an unexpected visit by aurors – or rather, an auror and an auror trainee.

"Wotcher, Professor," Nymphadora Tonks greeted him.

"Albus," came Alastor's curt greeting a moment later.

The first thing Dumbledore's eyes were drawn to inside the tiny living room was the double-page in-depth article in the Daily Prophet, authored by Archibald Fenetre, about security officials at Azkaban putting pressure on the Minister for Magic to recapture Black. Dumbledore had read it the day before, and had almost tried to convince himself that the guards might actually be that eager, and responsible for the strange way his meeting with Fudge had gone prior to reading the paper, during which he had been informed that dementors would be sent to Hogwarts come September – and that he had absolutely no say in that.

The irony, he had discovered that morning, was that the guards would in fact have much preferred it if Dumbledore had reassured them that Black was indeed dead, they had never made a blunder, and it was all a gigantic hoax. They certainly were not the ones putting pressure on Fudge.

He had spent the entire meeting reminding the minister to focus on Pettigrew – who had, after all, evaded capture for significantly longer. It had taken him a moment – he was embarrassed to admit – to realise that Fudge's zeal for justice was strongly attached to his popularity. In fact, popularity seemed to be the only source of pressure that had any influence on Fudge's decision-making at the moment.

"Please have a seat," said Remus.

Dumbledore took the stool Remus must have vacated before opening the door for him, so as not to embarrass him, and seated himself next to the aurors squished together on the tiny couch. Remus was left to lean against the windowsill.

"I suppose you're on official business here?" Dumbledore asked the aurors.

"More or less," said Alastor in his usual rough voice. Then, with a shake of his head, he explained, "Lupin's already been questioned as a suspect. The auror who had the assignment, Dawlish – don't know if you've heard of him—"

"I have," said Dumbledore.

"Well, let's just say he can be a bit over-zealous. But Scrimgeour finally put an end to that line of enquiry yesterday."

Dumbledore glanced at Remus at this explanation, noting his averted eyes and too-stiff posture. He suppressed a sigh. Perhaps he should have checked up on Remus earlier, he thought.

Alastor, who had followed his glance with his magical eye, grimaced. "Several rounds of questioning, and not once did he consider using Mr Lupin here as a source of information." He shook his head. "But once I had suggested it, and Remus had agreed to help voluntarily with the investigation—"

"Of course," said Romus.

"—Scrimgeour liked the idea well enough, and allowed me to assign it to my trainee. You remember Miss Tonks, I take it?"

"Of course, she's not easy to forget," said Dumbledore genially. "Not to mention, Professor Sprout has been telling us all about your impressive achievements since leaving Hogwarts," he told the young auror trainee.

"Dear old Professor Sprout! Do send her my regards, Professor," said Tonks.

"She just finished her first assisted investigation this year. It was the Lockhart case, if you remember—"

"Of course, I met her at Hogwarts when she was conducting the investigation."

"And I thought she could use more practice," finished Alastor. "We just have a couple of routine questions for Mr Lupin."

"If you wish me to wait outside—"

"No, Professor," Remus said immediately. "I have nothing to hide, and no qualms about answering any and all questions in your presence." He looked and sounded entirely calm.

"W-well," began Tonks, after Alastor had directed his expectant gaze at her – focusing both of his eyes on her. She leafed through a tiny notebook she was holding. "Er, Mr Lupin, have you had any inkling – prior to the, um, the incident at Hogwarts – that either of your friends were still alive?"

"Former," said Remus.

"Pardon?"

"Former friends. And I… I want to say no, in the sense that I never would have suspected that they were alive. But…" He hesitated. "In hindsight, there were a couple – odd – things that happened last year."

"Oh?" Alastor sounded interested – and surprised.

Dumbledore suspected that was because Alastor thought the questioning was more of an exercise for Tonks, than a useful investigation.

"Yes… I don't know if those events had anything to do with – with them, but—" He swallowed. "I received a Christmas present last year. An anonymous present. It might have been from someone else, I suppose, but… The other thing that I want to mention is even more flimsy. There was an article in the Daily Prophet—"

"Let's come back to the present for a moment," said Tonks. "Could you please tell us what it was? Could we take a look at it?"

"I'm afraid not. It was a potion. It's gone now."

"A potion? What sort of potion?"

"A useful one, I expect," Alastor spoke over his trainee, "if it's already gone."

Ah. She must not know about Remus' lycantrophy, if Alastor did not want to mention Wolfsbane, surmised Dumbledore.

"Well, alright then," Tonks conceded with a frown. She quickly took notes, then looked back up at Remus. "You also mentioned some newspaper articles?"

"Yes. Interviews with an anonymous 'member of the public' that sounded… I don't know how to explain it. They sounded like I was listening to someone I had not talked to in a very long time."

"Which article would that be? And which one of your friends—"

"Former."

"—Sorry, former friends, do you suspect gave the interview?" Tonks turned quite red from embarrassment – in the face, but also the hair.

Remus blinked, surprised, but did not comment. "Sirius Black," he said very quietly. "It was an interview about a piece of legislation that passed last year, um—"

"I see," said Alastor, before Remus could finish the sentence.

Dumbledore admired the speed with which he had understood what Remus was talking about: the very unfortunate new werewolf legislation.

"Right…" Tonks went back to reviewing her notes.

She looked surprisingly serious, especially in contrast to the vibrant way she was dressed – a far cry from the way Dumbledore remembered her, dressed in Hogwarts uniforms.

"There was the issue of Pettigrew being a rat animagus," cut in Alastor. "And whether Black is one as well."

"Yes, Mad-Eye. I was getting to that," said Tonks, not bothering to suppress an eye-roll. "So, Mr Lupin, can you tell us anything about that?"

"I'm afraid I can't." Remus looked apologetic. At least on the surface. But Dumbledore had known him from early childhood, from the time of his mischief-making years at Hogwarts. He could tell Remus was nervous, and doing his best to hide it.

"So you claim to have no knowledge of your – former – friends being animagi? Didn't you ever suspect?" Tonks looked at Remus shrewdly, and despite the even tone, there was a sharp, incisive note to her question, suggesting that she was not going to let that topic go easily.

"I haven't met face-to-face with either in almost twelve years. Pettigrew may have acquired all sorts of skills in that stretch of time that I wouldn't know anything about."

"So you're claiming they weren't animagi when you knew them? Would you be willing to stand by that statement if it's discovered that Black is indeed an animagus?"

Dumbledore frowned. The one thing his visit to Azkaban had convinced him of was that Black was almost certainly an animagus. It was the only explanation for his escape. For both Black and Pettigrew to have acquired the same extremely challenging, somewhat obscure magical skill in the last twelve years – after the Potters' death and their separation – was extremely unlikely.

"I'm afraid I can't help you," repeated Remus.

"Can't or won't?" said Dumbledore, cutting across Tonks' reply. Seeing Remus' hesitation, he went on, more sure of his guess. "I mean to say, do you not know, do you not wish to answer, or is there some sort of impediment to you revealing the truth?"

Remus looked equal parts relieved and anguished. He opened his mouth, as if to say something, but then closed it again, dropping his gaze.

"I hope it's not anything truly foolish, like an unbreakable vow?"

The startled look he received in return was all the confirmation he needed. Dumbledore sighed.

"We were such foolish boys," Remus finally said, his voice barely a whisper. "I swore I'd keep their secrets, because they were willing to do such an extraordinary thing for me. The risk, the effort, the fact that it was illegal—"

"For you?" Tonks was frowning. "Whatever do you—"

"Ah, I see," said Alastor. "What an ingenious idea."

Dumbledore had to agree. They had indeed been extraordinarily ingenious boys. What a shame.

"And what foolishness to swear such a vow, keeping someone else's secrets," went on Alastor. "Such a lack of foresight—"

"Yes, yes, Mad-Eye. He failed at Constant Vigilance," said Tonks. "Now, Mr Lupin, is there any wiggle room in that vow you swore? Anything you can tell us?"

Remus opened his mouth, as if trying to speak, but after a moment he shook his head dejectedly.

Tonks slumped in disappointment. "Well, do you know of any other surprise skills Black might have?"

Remus contorted his face into something that resembled a smile, but was more of a grimace. "Only that he was generally very capable. He was an excellent student, even though he never seemed to be working. And after school…" He swept a look over the other two men, conscious not to mention the Order of the Phoenix in front of the uninitiated.

Alastor nodded, much to Tonks' annoyance. She could have hardly stayed unaware of the fact that there were silent conversations going on in the room that she was being excluded from.

"Well," said Tonks. "Mad-Eye, I'm done, I think. So if you don't have any more questions—" At Alastor's head shake, she got up. "In that case, thank you for your help, Mr Lupin—"

"One other thing," said Remus. "You asked about Black's skills, but let me say that Pettigrew was a lot more capable than people sometimes gave him credit for. Not everyone who knew him will be able to tell you this, but please remember that while Black may have escaped from Azkaban, Pettigrew managed to stay undetected for over eleven years. Not just that, but no one even suspected his betrayal. Even I, until very recently, still believed that he had died a hero." He ended on a whisper.

Dumbledore recalled that Pettigrew had indeed not been without talent – merely overshadowed by his vastly more brilliant friends.

"I would have a question, if you don't mind," said Dumbledore.

Tonks sat back down.

"Of course, Professor," said Remus. "Go ahead."

"Actually, it's a couple of hypotheses I wanted to run past you – all of you. Here's what I'm wondering. Pettigrew must have staged his death, with or without Black's help. If he and Black were conspiring together, it would have taken an immense sacrifice on Black's part to take all the blame and let his friend walk free. And yet, how likely is it that they'd be at odds with each other if they both chose to switch sides?"

He was met with confused stares from all his listeners.

"What are you talking about, Albus?" said Alastor. "Of course they're on the same side – on the side of that blasted You-know-who and his band of miscreants—"

"You think they had a disagreement?" asked Remus, surprised.

"Apparently, considering they were fighting each other when they were discovered in the Chamber of Secrets—"

The exclamations of surprise gave Dumbledore pause. "Someone neglected to make you aware of this, I take it?" He was beginning to think that he would have to have another chat with Fudge very soon, much to his annoyance. And this time, he would make sure it was in his official capacity as Chief Warlock, if necessary.

"Professor, could—" Remus swallowed. "Could, maybe, Pettigrew have been trying to help fight Black?" There was an awful hope in his eyes.

"Oh, he did fight Black, but he was definitely helping the possessed Lockhart. In fact, it was Black who distracted him away from attacking Minerva and the others."

This calm announcement was met with a great amount of surprise from the aurors. Remus, on the other hand, looked away, but it was clear his thoughts were racing.

"I've been wondering what could have caused such a change of heart on Black's part," went on Dumbledore. "The only thing I can think of is that he had not planned to take the fall for his friend, after all, and that Pettigrew somehow tricked him."

Remus turned his head woodenly to look at him, and nodded jerkily. "Black would have been livid if Pettigrew managed to trick him like that."

The real question, Dumbledore supposed, was why Pettigrew would have chosen to betray Black as well.

A pause fell in the conversation. After a moment, Alastor nodded. "A most informative interview, this has been." He nodded. "What do you think, Tonks? Was this worth our while?"

Tonks responded with an indelicate snort. "Wonder what Scrimgeour will have to say."

The way Alastor smiled grimly, he was rather looking forward to that conversation.

Once the aurors had left, Remus offered Dumbledore the couch, as well as a cup of tea, before seating himself opposite him on the stool. While he was away, making the tea, Dumbledore had time to take in the surroundings. It was the same plain, tiny cottage Remus' parents had moved to after their funds had run out, spent on every supposed cure for lycantrophy they had heard of, and being ostracised from every neighbourhood for keeping their werewolf child. It looked a lot shabbier than it had back then, but likely still concealed the same reinforced basement.

"How is your father?" he asked his former student once Remus had sat down with is tea in hand. He remembered that Remus' mother had passed away a few years ago.

"He's doing alright. He's living in Cardiff now, with my aunt, his sister. He was beginning to find living out here more and more difficult, until I finally convinced him to move…"

Dumbledore nodded. Being aware of Remus' father's constant blaming himself for his son's condition, he knew there was much left unsaid, but he did not prod further. "And how have you been, Remus?" he asked instead.

"I'm still around, I suppose," was the quiet reply. Under the new wrinkles, the greying hair, Remus looked as patient, as persevering as ever. He clearly was affected by Black and Pettigrew being alive. However, within a moment's span, his calm had reasserted itself.

"I believe enough of your time has been taken up already today, so I'll come straight to the point. I wanted to offer you the defence against the dark arts teaching post this year—"

Remus' eyes widened. "Professor, that's – I-I really don't think—"

Dumbledore held up his hand. "Let's agree that I'm aware of the obvious objections you may have, regarding your condition—"

"And my lack of qualification—"

"A technicality, as we both know—"

"As well as my former association with – with—" Remus waved his hands.

"Yes. Exactly. Your association with Pettigrew and Black. Your understanding of their motivations, their actions—"

"Which makes me a suspect—"

"Not in my eyes. And, frankly, those who suspect you need their eyes examined. No. Your association with your former friends would make you a great asset in protecting the school, I believe. You knew them. If anyone can predict their actions, it's got to be you. You also know their secrets – some of which you cannot share, but your knowledge of Black's animagus form should be its own protection for the school."

Remus looked away, his objections slowing. "The wards," he suddenly said. "Professor, I ought to warn you – we – that is, James, Black Pettigrew, and I – used to know a great deal about the way the school's wards worked. And in great detail. Do you understand?"

"Indeed. I don't believe there's any need to worry on that account. The wards have gone through some changes over the years, and of course they've been reinforced because of the current situation. Not to mention the dementors that will be placed all around the school come September."

Remus looked dissatisfied, but slowly nodded.

"But, of course, if you accept the post, you'll be able to suggest more defences to the school once you're there." Dumbledore beamed, having failed to understand the warning.

Remus got up, agitated. He want to the windowsill to put his mug there, effectively turning away from Dumbledore, if for a moment.

"Remus, I understand that this must be difficult for you," said Dumbledore gently. "But I don't think hiding away from your former friends is quite your style—"

Remus whirled back around, and took the couple steps to the stool. He sat down heavily, burying his face in his hands. "They asked me if I wanted to claim Black's—" He waved his hands, unable to finish the sentence. "I refused. I considered the funds involved—" His breath hitched. "Told myself he didn't deserve my – my c-care, but that wasn't the whole reason. If only I had gone, at least we'd have found out that he was still alive that much sooner."

He fell silent, but Dumbledore did not offer any empty reassurances.

"The Christmas present I received – what are the chances, do you think, that someone else sent it?" Remus asked, clearly hoping for the unlikely answer.

"I can only tell you that unfortunately, to my best knowledge, it wasn't sent by anyone I know."

"Right." Remus scowled. "A change of heart, you called it? Presents for me, driving Pettigrew away from the Chamber of Secrets. What's next?"

"I wouldn't venture to guess, but I might know perhaps what began it." Dumbledore told an astonished Remus about Harry's letter to Black.

"That makes no sense!" exclaimed Remus after a lengthy pause. "What, did Harry's letter guilt him into betraying Pettigrew after going to prison for him? And even if Pettigrew tricked him initially – why would he suddenly thwart Voldemort's plans? At least that's what I read – that Lockhart had been possessed by some dark artefact left by Voldemort—"

"Yes, that's true. And you're absolutely right. Black's behaviour does seem bizarre: Trying to get back at Pettigrew is one thing, but interfering with an elaborate plan set in motion by another Death Eater – Lucius Malfoy, if you were wondering, but unfortunately, I couldn't pin it on him—"

"So he's been acting strangely ever since faking his death – first, by staying completely unnoticed – he could've stayed hidden all his life, if he'd wanted to, I suppose. Only, he had to go and fight with Pettigrew—"

"I'm not sure if faking his death is quite correct. I talked to the Azkaban guards today. They believe Black really did very nearly die—" Dumbledore would have said more, but Remus' stricken look arrested him.

The conclusions were not easy to draw. Had Black felt real guilt? Enough to lead to a real change of heart? It was utterly bizarre. And yet, had Black's betrayal of the Potters not been just as bizarre—

Dumbledore's thoughts ground to a halt as a completely preposterous thought occurred to him. All of Black's actions would stop being bizarre if he had never changed sides at all – if he was innocent of the betrayal he was accused of.

This was too mad a thought, even for Dumbledore's standards, but before he had found irrefutable reasoning to dismiss it, he noticed Remus' stunned expression, shifting through different emotions too quickly for Dumbledore to discern them all.

Once Remus' mind had also stopped racing, the two wizards stared at each other, left with the same, unutterable thought.

Then Remus got up abruptly. "I accept," he said. "I'll come to teach at Hogwarts."