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wolves in the woods

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Wolves in the woods don't play by the rules.
Caught By The Wind, Stereophonics

-

It was Sirius’s fault. Peter had been the first to say it, wild-eyed and panicky, the words bursting out of his mouth not as a statement but as a plea, as though he was begging Remus to believe it, begging James to accept it, and begging Sirius to agree. His eyes were red from crying and lack of sleep, tears smudged across his cheeks, and his hands were shaking visibly. They would flop limply at his sides before he screwed his hands into tight fists, seemingly unable to bear relaxation in a single muscle or joint in his body. His hands kept springing up to clutch at his own forearms, crossed across his chest, before he thrust them helplessly back down to his sides to begin the routine once more.

Normally, Remus would have encouraged Peter to sit down; laid a soothing hand on a tense arm. He did not.

On the other side of the bed, James was standing still as one of the guards Remus had seen outside Buckingham Palace when Mrs Potter had taken the four of them into the centre of London for a day trip two summers ago. He was paler than Remus had ever seen him and his eyes were fixed on some distant point at the other end of the room, though behind his glasses his eyes were unfocused and unseeing. His stillness was worse than Peter’s flustering, somehow. As long as the grass was green and the sun was hot, James Potter was meant to be loud and exuberant. This James was neither of those things.

Remus laid back carefully against his pillows and studied the familiar ceiling of the Hospital Wing. He closed his eyes and counted to ten, slowly, breathing in time with them just as Madam Pomfrey had shown him.

When he opened his eyes, James and Peter were still there. Some childish part of him was outraged that closing his eyes and wishing the world away had not worked. The older part of him was still utterly numb.

Finally, James dragged his eyes towards Remus and focused on him with an effort. Remus looked back at him and abruptly wished he hadn’t. He couldn’t bear to see that kind of pain in James’s eyes.

“Remus,” James said quietly. His voice was hoarse. “Pete is right.”

Peter, who normally loved it when James said things like that about him, gave a little moan. He sank into ones of the chairs by Remus’s bed.

Remus opened his mouth to reply, then closed it. Words failed him. “You have to believe that, because it’s the truth,” James continued. Remus would’ve laughed if he could find any desire in his being to ever laugh again. The statement was just so utterly James.

But things like this were not meant to happen in James’s world. In James’s world, parents were benevolent and happiness came easy, talent was in rich supply and belief was something you could afford to be righteous about. This, by contrast, was something straight out of Remus’s world. It was the final middle finger, the boot up his backside which would tip him unceremoniously from the threshold of the wizarding world. It was, frankly, the moment Remus had been waiting for ever since Albus Dumbledore had shown up at his parents’ front door with a letter emblazoned with the Hogwarts crest.

A hand touched his arm. Remus recoiled, but James was steadfast. “It was Sirius’s fault,” he said. He would have sounded calm had his voice not cracked on his best friend’s name.

Remus stared up at James for a long moment. Then he said, “Let me see him.”

“Remus – ”

“I want to see what I have done,” Remus said, slowly and clearly.

For a long moment there was nothing but silence. James looked at Peter, and Peter stared back at James with tight lips and wide, bloodshot eyes. He shook his head quickly. “He won’t want to see – ”

“Do not tell me what I want to see,” Remus said through gritted teeth. The wolf, restless under the surface with only a few hours separating him from his last jaunt under the moon, bristled in his tone. The rat in Peter cowered, and Peter ducked his head. Remus turned his flat, unrelenting gaze on James. “Let. Me. See. Him.”

James resisted for a handful of seconds. Moments from something like a dream passed through Remus’s mind – antlers glinting in the moonlight, driving him back from what he wanted. Howling, snarling, incandescent with instinctive rage. Inconsequential squeaking from the stupid tiny creature hiding underneath the stag, and he wanted to tear bite attack but the dog distracted him, bounding into view and pouncing on his left paw, scuffle play fun

“Please,” whispered Remus.

James relented. He stepped away from the bed to give Remus room and then helped him up. Remus didn’t bother to pretend he didn’t need the help. As far as moon injuries went this month’s didn’t seem too bad, but he wished for dislocated limbs and gashes. When Remus himself came away relatively unhurt, it was only because the wolf had become distracted. This month, he knew what had distracted it.

A murmur from James had Peter scurrying to stand guard outside Pomfrey’s office at the far end of the Hospital Wing. He seemed grateful for the task. Remus supposed he couldn’t blame him.

Leaning heavily on James, Remus hobbled over to the only bed that had curtains drawn all the way round. His senses were still heightened from the moon and as he approached he could smell blood, coppery and thick on the air. The wolf hungered. Remus swallowed back bile.

James left him leaning against the next bed along and gave him a long, hard look which made it clear he still thought this was a bad idea. He took a moment to steel himself, and Remus watched with an odd kind of longing as James bolstered the Gryffindor courage that ran through his blood and drew it around himself, as snug as his Invisibility Cloak. Remus wished he could do that.

James drew back the curtains. Remus stared at the body in the bed. Still as death, with blue and purple bruises blooming like a violent ugly pattern across too-pale skin. Gauze on forehead, bandages around left wrist and right forearm, creeping up to the shoulder – where red was beginning to stain through the crisp white, and Remus remembered with stark, sickening clarity that same blood in his mouth, rich and noble on his tongue, the wet split of flesh and the crunch of sinew between his teeth as his jaws snapped down on a bite.

-

Faster, urges Wolf. Dog sprints to keep up but struggles. It is a large Dog but it is still smaller than Wolf, and Wolf is the strongest, always. Wolf leers as Dog falls back, but Dog is not one to go down without a fight: it lunges forward and delivers a swift nip to Wolf’s haunch in retribution. Wolf howls and spins to give chase as Dog leaps playfully away. They run in ever-decreasing circles until Wolf bodily slams into Dog and sends Dog tumbling over itself. Wolf stands on top of Dog and bares all its teeth. Dog huffs but rolls over, baring its belly, and Wolf howls again in satisfaction.

Lesser beast. Wolf pretends to nip at Dog’s exposed belly.

Dog swats Wolf aside and goes to pounce and feint at Stag instead. Wolf allows this, because Dog is Wolf’s favourite member of Pack.

Stag and Dog are playing one of their usual games of hunt and chase, dancing under the moonlight. Rat skitters about between them, squeaking wildly. Wolf watches the game lazily, waiting for a moment to join in. Rat is ignored completely: Wolf allows its existence because Dog and Stag play with Rat and do not eat Rat, and so Wolf does not kill (though it would be so very easily to kill, and Wolf wants, sometimes. Wolf is not good at resisting wants, but Wolf remembers how Dog whimpered when Wolf once pinned Rat down and so Wolf does not destroy the squeaking prey).

Eventually Wolf’s moment comes and the game becomes Wolf’s, because Wolf is the strongest and best member of Pack. Stag butts at Wolf with its antlers and Wolf rears up, raising a paw to swat. They tussle while Dog lays down to watch, tongue lolling out in a mad grin. Rat hides in Dog’s shadow, but Dog is too transfixed by Wolf and Stag’s game to take any notice.

Stag is driving Wolf back, out of their little clearing and deeper into the forest. Wolf does not want this, and growls a warning. Moon is losing its power and Wolf wants to savour every delicious second of freedom. Stag is determined, and one of its antlers stabs at Wolf’s flank when Wolf turns, a sharp burst of unexpected pain.

Wolf yips, startled, then abruptly enraged. Wolf snarls at Stag and leaps for a bite which Stag fends off with a rough shake of it head. In the clearing, Dog has risen, scenting the air and sensing the change in mood.

Stag is also aware of the change and dips its head slightly, contrite, but Wolf will not relent. Wolf advances, rumbling from deep within its chest, and it can sense Stag’s heartbeat quickening, its blood running faster.

Dog appears by Wolf’s side and noses at it, trying to distract. Wolf barges Dog aside. Wolf crouches, ready to pounce. Stag is afraid. Wolf is salivating, can already taste hot Stag blood on its tongue, Wolf lunges because Wolf WANTS –

A new smell, strong enough to make Wolf change direction mid-lunge and go flying past Stag. Wolf is already turning on the spot even as Wolf lands in a crouch, nostrils flaring for this new scent, delicious, ultimate prey.

Dog is gone. Human stands in Dog’s place. Young human, male human. Wolf notices none of these things because Wolf does not care. Wolf charges and pounces even as Prey crackles with Magic and folds in on itself, Human becoming Dog again – but not quite fast enough.

Prey is caught somewhere between forms when Wolf catches it, and Wolf sinks its teeth into flesh that tastes more of Human than Dog. The howl that erupts is all Dog, but the taste of Human is still singing on Wolf’s tongue, staining its gums, and Wolf will dream of this taste until the next Moon.

Human is all gone now and only Dog remains, but Dog does not want to play with Wolf anymore. Dog lies on the ground in a shivering heap, emitting tiny agonised whimpers. Wolf noses at Dog curiously, even as Dog shudders and whines again. Dog still smells faintly of Human, but Wolf is uninterested in this. Wolf wants the taste back, and Dog is Pack, anyway.

Wolf looks around, disappointed to have lost Prey. Rat is quivering in the Moonlight not far away and Stag is where Wolf left it, backed up against a tree and utterly frozen.

Rat scurries off, aiming for the shack where Wolf wakes every Moon. Stag does not move. Wolf turns away in disinterest and lays down next to Dog’s prone form. Dog does not seem to be getting up. Wolf noses at it again, bored, but Dog does not even whine this time. Wolf waits.

After a short while, Rat returns. Wolf watches Rat run to Stag and deposit something at its hooves, squeaking madly as soon as it is able. Rat is always squeaking and always stinks of fear: Wolf is not interested in this.

The moment Wolf turns away, the smell of Prey reappears. Wolf whips round eagerly, but just as it registers that this this scent comes from where Stag was standing just a moment ago, this Human shouts and points, and Wolf feels Magic ripple through the air. It’s the last thing Wolf knows before everything becomes black.

-

Remus stared down at the body in the bed before him. Sirius always looked small when he was sleeping. This was something Remus had learned years ago – back in First Year, even, when he’d first found Sirius curled up in bed, frowning in his sleep with a Black-sealed letter clutched in his fist. Sirius’s body had never seemed big enough to contain his personality, and sleep seemed to emphasise this. Looking at Sirius now, prone in a hospital bed, it was impossible not to think about that 11 year old asleep in his four poster, weeks after arriving to Hogwarts. Sirius had alternated between defensive and aggressive for the first two months, trapped between the disgust of his family and the irritation of his peers.

Remus thought of that child, brought up to hate Remus and everything he was, throwing off years of conditioning in order to become Remus’s best friend. He thought of the wolf seizing Sirius and biting him with joy. He felt ill.

“Is he – “ Remus swallowed, but his throat remained dry as prickly as ever. “Is he under a Sleeping Draught, or – ”

He’d trailed off deliberately so that James might leap in and confirm this. James did not. Instead, there was an uncomfortable moment of silence. Then James said, “He hasn’t woken since they brought him in.”

Remus couldn’t look away from him. “Has Pomfrey said anything to you?”

James shook his head. “Only that she’ll let us know what she knows, as soon as she finds anything out,” he said heavily. “She knows… the basics.”

“She knows about Padfoot?”

“And the rest. We had to tell her, or – ” James’s voice caught again, in the same way it did earlier when he said Sirius’s name. “She had to know. To see if there was any way that him being mid-transformation might have…”

“Stopped me infecting him.”

James was silent. They both knew just how slims those odds were.

“She’s been in there since just before you woke up,” James said after a while. He nodded his head towards her office, where Peter still stood guard, looking like he might fall asleep standing at any second. “Her and Dumbledore and McGonagall.”

Remus finally dragged his eyes away from Sirius to look at James. He’d taken his glasses off to rub them clean on his sleeve. Remus could see now that he too had been crying. He tried to remember the last time he’d seen James cry but his mind drew a blank.

Most of Remus’s memories of his time as the wolf were blurred and dream-like, but he remembered well enough the wolf’s glee at smelling a second human. He tried to console himself with the knowledge that this could have been twice as bad, but with Sirius unconscious and bloodied before them, there was little consolation to be found in anything.

“It was his fault,” James said again. “I don’t mean – he never meant for this to happen, we all know that, but he chose to turn human again, he knew the risks, turning back was reckless – it’s not your fault, Moony. It’s not.” He wiped at his eyes and put his glasses on. He looked at Sirius, then began to blink furiously and took off his glasses once again.

Remus reached out with a hand which shook slightly, and touched the back of Sirius’s hand. He felt hot to the touch. Werewolf infection, his mind supplied unhelpfully. Infected individuals run at a higher temperature for approximately 24 hours after the bite is received as their body adjusts to live with the disease.

His hand stayed on top of Sirius’s. He didn’t realise he was crying until James put his arms around him and he felt James’s body shake with his own sobs. Remus let go of Sirius and clutched at James like a lifeline. Peter abandoned guard duty to join them, and the three of them clung to each other as though if they held on tight enough they might just be able to rewind to the point where James, Sirius and Peter had set off on their moonlight adventure last night, and make the decision to go back to bed instead.

“I’m sorry,” Remus moaned from somewhere just above James’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry, I never – Sirius – ”

“He’s alive, mate,” James whispered, though his voice was choked. “He’s alive, and we’ll get through this.”

“When have you ever known Sirius back down from a challenge?” Peter put in, shaky but determined, and Remus was so grateful that they were here, holding him, and not recoiling in horror from the monster who had bitten their friend.

Bitten. Beyond James, Remus’s eyes found Sirius again. Found the red-stained bandage, and remembered the salty rush of blood and the wolf’s jubilation. The blunt facts materialised in his mind, and if not for James and Peter’s grip on him his legs would have buckled under the terrible enormity of them.

Remus had bitten Sirius. Sirius was a werewolf. Remus had infected his best friend, and nothing was ever going to be the same again.