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Although they were all eager to escape the hospital and discuss the ramifications of Charlie's message, Remus refused to hurry; once arrangements had been made for guards to be put on Charlie's door, he sent Tonks to Fourteen Back with the phonograph, then sent Sirius and Harry with Glastonbury to follow her back.

"How can we help?" Fred asked, fearless of the glare that this garnered from his father.

"Stay with your brother. Make sure at least one person is with him whenever possible -- your job right now is to make sure nobody tries to hurt him," Remus said, glancing at Arthur. "When he's conscious, try and find out how he got here and who he spoke to in Romania. I want the whole story, including what happened while he was traveling. Don't press him; get what you can, and try not to upset him."

"Is there anything else?" Bill asked.

"Not for now -- this is better handled by Harry and myself. Charlie needs you more," Remus answered. "I'll be back tomorrow afternoon -- I'm so sorry, Arthur, Molly," he added distractedly as he left. Percy slipped out after him, but he hardly noticed; he was already Apparating to the dirty, muddy alley behind the cottage.

He let himself in through the garden gate, grateful for the warmth of the garden after the snowy chill of the alley. The kitchen door was open; inside, Harry and Sirius were sitting at the table with Glastonbury between them and the phonograph playing -- the record was already past the all-important narration, and now the strains of the Firebird Suite filled the room. Tonks was sipping her tea, leaning against the counter near the cupboard where the cup and the locket were kept.

"It's Glastonbury somehow, isn't it?" Harry asked, as Remus passed through the kitchen and into his bedroom. He took down a book from his shelf and held it in the flat of his palm, paging through it as he brought it back to the table where they sat. "Does he know how to destroy them?"

"I doubt it," Remus replied, still thumbing through the book. "It's not the phoenix's knowledge but the phoenix himself -- Stravinsky was a squib, he must have known something -- perhaps someone who knew Rasputin..." He shook his head, laughing only slightly hysterically. "He put old Wizarding legends into his music all the time -- James did a paper on it for Muggle Studies while we were at school. I should have thought of the Fire Bird, but I'm more fond of Tchaikovsky..."

He set the book down on the table, fingers splayed across a particular passage. "Fire's an elemental force, a violent cleansing force. Wizards don't like to use it if they can avoid it; it's much easier and gentler to use some other kind of charm. I would imagine..." he added, "...that Dumbledore had other methods on his mind. In fact, we know he did -- Harry used poison to destroy the first one. The ring, however...I don't think he tried fire first, if he tried it at all."

"But fire won't work anyway, we know that," Harry said. "Melting a thing doesn't necessarily destroy it..."

"Not regular fire, no," Remus said, and his eyes were drawn to Glastonbury, who was preening nearby. "Dumbledore knew Voldemort was afraid of phoenixes, but he never knew why...."

"Regulus did," Sirius whispered. "Regulus found out. That's why he left the egg, isn't it? To show that he knew?"

"It's not unlikely," Remus agreed. He held out his arm and gestured invitingly at Glastonbury. The phoenix hopped across the table and fluttered onto his wrist. Remus stroked his vivid plumage affectionately, examining his skin and feathers as he did so.

"I think we'll know if it's true in another three weeks or so," he said. "He's just starting to moult a little, and he's young enough that it'll take a bit of time. When he -- er -- goes up, as it were, we can use that flame. I hope."

"Will it work?" Sirius asked, staring at Glastonbury.

"It ought to. Phoenix fire notoriously burns away impurities; it's been known to strip base metals out of alloys. I don't know how it will work, but it should." He shook his head. "I owe my Russian friends a large favour."

"But that still only takes care of the cup and the locket," Harry pointed out. "We've got to find that other horcrux."

He looked at Remus and clearly saw something Remus hadn't meant him to see in his face. Before he could help himself, Remus cut his eyes away. Harry's silence became thoughtful and expectant, but he didn't speak.

"At least we can get two," Sirius said. "That's something. That's a lot, really. It'll buy us time, don't you think?"

"Time," Remus repeated, nodding. "Unfortunately, now we have nothing but time. Three weeks from'll be December, not long from the winter holiday. Near your birthday too, Sirius. Seventeen -- big day. "

"Not that it matters," Sirius muttered. "Everyone thinks I'm twenty-something anyway."

"This is all good news, though, " Remus said. "Let's just leave it at that, shall we? Besides, we need sleep -- I want to find out everything I can about the relationship between phoenixes and horcruxes tomorrow, and that means a full day in the library. Sirius," he called, as the boys headed for the door into the living room, "Would you prefer teaching tomorrow? If you'd rather research with us, I can ask Nick to do it."

"Nick?" Harry asked scornfully.

"Who better to give a guest lecture on ghosts?" Remus asked. "He's very keenly political, too, which makes it much more real."

"That's fine, I'll do it," Sirius assured him.

"Grand, I'll have notes for you in the morning," Remus said. Sirius made a gesture of resignation even as he followed Harry to the stairs.

"Long evening," Tonks remarked, unself-consciously taking off her robes and tunic in favour of an enormous t-shirt to sleep in. It was blazoned with the faded slogan "I Go Bump In The Night" and Remus desperately hoped that it had been either a hand-me-down or a novelty purchase a long time ago. He knew in his heart of hearts that he would never, ever be able to ask.

"Poor Charlie. He didn't deserve that," Remus said. "I'll pick up some flowers for him in Hogsmeade tomorrow, and one of those really embarrassing balloons that shriek Get Well Soon every time someone comes in the room."

"Fred and George have probably already taken care of the balloon," she replied, turning down the blankets on the bed while he undressed. "I guess you could get him a second one and they could shriek in harmony."

"Hah," Remus answered, falling back on the bed and looking up at her from where his head hung, upside down, across the other side of it. "But just think of what we accomplished tonight."

"We haven't actually accomplished anything yet," she answered. He sat up on the bed and turned to face her, rather stiffly. The moon wasn't that far past.

"But we will. Phoenix fire is the key, I'm certain of it. With the cup and the locket gone, there's only two remaining."

"One as simple as bashing its head in," she agreed. He winced a little, inwardly. "But that still leaves one."

The urge to talk to Tonks, to confess to someone and to trust them with the knowledge, was overwhelming. He had almost told Severus, and he didn't even like Severus. He was in love with Tonks.

"If nothing else, it buys us time. We can still fight him. If he dies this time, we'll know to hunt him down even if we never destroy the sixth horcrux," he said instead, taking her by the arm and pulling her down against his body, the pair of them an awkward, affectionate tangle of limbs. "He can be trapped, imprisoned -- "

"You know there are no half-measures," she said, her smile turning grave. "You know as well as I do that Dumbledore always intended he should die. I'm an Auror, Remus -- every day we struggle not to become judge and executioner. But this is different. This isn't idealism. It's a bloody struggle for our future. In prison he still has power. He still has followers ready to break him free. My aunt Bellatrix is out there somewhere..." she shivered, disgustedly.

"Yes, but if we can't find the other horcrux, it's an option," he said.

"You sound like you wish we wouldn't," she answered.

"No, of course I want him defeated. I just wonder if we don't assume rather much when we assume that only death equals defeat."

"But in this case, surely it does? The only way this ends is with his death. If it's in a fight, in self-defence, so much the better -- but if you told me we had all six horcruxes, the same night you destroyed the rest I'd kill him in cold blood myself."

"Would you, I wonder," he said, shifting so that he lay properly on the bed and leaning back to study the ceiling. "I can't imagine you slitting a man's throat while he slept, Tonks."

"Wouldn't you? This man's? He doesn't even look human, Remus," she said, dousing the lights. "If you thought about what he'd done to Sirius, to the Longbottoms, to Harry's parents..."

Remus breathed deeply, remembering Fenrir's face behind the glass in that poky little Auror holding cell. It seemed like much longer ago than a bare two months. The bed creaked a little as she lay down next to him, pulling the covers up over their hips.

"Horcruxes are made," he said slowly, still staring at the ceiling, "when we capture a piece of a soul in an object. You can see what happens when a man loses his soul in shreds. Depravity, despair, violence...when you kill, you lose that little piece of yourself, whether or not it goes into a locket or just...flitting off into the air somewhere. It would be indecent not to learn from the horcruxes what value to place even on the most worthless-seeming human life."

Fenrir hadn't valued life, unless it was on his inflexible, terrifying, ignorant terms. He'd been willing to kill too, without provocation and without warning, for his ideals. They were bad ideals, of course, but you couldn't change the rules just because you were the self-proclaimed good guys.

"So you wouldn't kill him, if you came across him sleeping in the Restricted Section tomorrow?"

"No," Remus replied, feeling his stomach twist unpleasantly. He rolled over, turning his back to her. "I don't know if I could. Maybe."

Tonks was silent for a moment; then he felt her fingers stroking his hair, occasionally twisting one of the short locks a little, affectionately.

"I wonder about horcruxes," she said.

"You'd do much better not to."

"Not like that. I think that if a good person made a horcrux, it must be much more powerful than if an evil one did."

"Do you suppose anyone who commits an act like that could really be called good?"

"Certainly," she replied. "I come across good men committing crimes every day. Good people can do bad things out of fear, desperation...say a man knew he was dying and made one so that he could be revived, because he had small children who needed him...."

"Without concern for his victim's children, I suppose."

"Perhaps not, but that doesn't make him evil -- just thoughtless."

He pondered it as she ruffled the hair near his ear. "Why do you suppose a good man's horcrux should be any more powerful than a bad man's? Tom Riddle had a soul just like you and I do."

"From what Harry's said, he hadn't much of one. Or was just that he had no moral code. To him, killing was like swatting flies. It didn't mean much. I'm surprised it tore at his soul at all. But even if it did, it can't have torn off very large pieces, can it?"

"I'm not sure the soul is quantifiable in that way, Tonks."

"All right, but you can't deny that a man who valued human life would have a much more difficult time killing than a man who killed for pleasure. The cost would be more. Sacrifice is old magic. It's powerful."

"Perhaps it would be more powerful," he said. "Perhaps it would simply be more wrong. Further to fall for a good man."

She smoothed down the hair she'd ruffled and kissed the back of his head, curling up against him.

"Murder is murder," he said softly. "It doesn't matter if the cause is good or the end, it only matters whether you own up and take the consequences or not. If not, you're a coward; if so, you're still a murderer, but at least you made a choice. Evil is unspectacular and always human -- "

" -- and shares our bed and eats at our own table, yes, I know," she finished the line for him. He took her hand, now resting across his hip, and held it in his as she rubbed her cheek against his shoulder. Before too much time had passed, she slept; he lay awake a little longer, but eventually his eyes closed as well.


"Headmistress McGonagall has spoken to me."

Sirius, who was reciting the twelve qualities of the zodiacal figures and their influences on each other, had paused to think further when Firenze suddenly spoke. He looked at his teacher mildly; it wasn't often Firenze interrupted a lesson with trivialities, especially since he had missed a few lately.

There were thirteen figures in the zodiac, though most wizards only used twelve. Each had twelve qualities, in the Centauric form, and a thirteenth hidden quality. Sirius was uncertain what, precisely, this would help him with when it came time for NEWTs, since he reckoned not many people had even made it this far, let alone wanted to test him on it. Still, he supposed it was good to know. He had stopped halfway through the qualities of Ophiuchus, which was just as well, as he couldn't remember the second half of them.

"About what?" Sirius asked.

"Your examinations," Firenze rumbled, a hint of distaste on his voice.

"But those aren't until next June!"

"Nevertheless, she wishes to ascertain your progress. She requested that I furnish her with a complete account of your apprenticeship." Firenze gave him a small, frosty smile. "I informed her, of course, that you were just as qualified to provide such a thing as I am."

At the start of the school year, Sirius would never have understood the centaur and might have felt rather insulted. Now he smiled back, pleased at the double-compliment; that Firenze considered him an apprentice, and that he trusted Sirius had retained all he was taught. "Thank you, Professor."

"No matter. Do you intend to take up the study of the stars after your year-and-day are done?"

"Hm?" Sirius asked. "After graduation? Oh. No, I don't suppose so."

"What do you intend?"

"I -- I hadn't thought about it," Sirius stammered.

"You are a poor liar, Sirius Black," Firenze said, swishing his tail.

"Sorry, sir."

"Are you ashamed of your profession?"

"No," Sirius scowled. "It's just private."

"Ah. And will you practice it in solitude, away from the prying eyes of men?"

"If you must know," Sirius retorted, "I'm going to be a Healer."

Firenze's expression didn't change. "A strange profession."

"In general? Or just for me?" Sirius demanded.

"Perhaps not so strange. Soldiers understand the value of such knowledge." Firenze pawed at the edge of the small fire Sirius had kindled, studying the flickers of smoke that rose as a result. "You are not an apt student of the fates, in the strictest sense of the word, but you are able. You comprehend far more than most. Look up to the stars."

Sirius obediently did so, wondering what was coming next.

"Close your eyes and find the stars beyond the horizon, as many as you are able. See how they move. Follow their courses."

Sirius felt his head begin to ache with the enormity of the task, but he anchored himself in Firenze's deep voice.

"There are patterns visible. Find them. You are a part of them; it should not be difficult."

For a split second, Sirius had a view of the stars spread out around him, whirling under his feet as well as above his closed eyes. There was a hint of pattern, untraceable but bright gold among the silver spatters that he used to populate this sky inside his head. Somewhere a distant dying sun, carrying his name, shone far more brightly than it ought; somewhere Mars was passing through a constellation that bespoke turmoil and death. Somewhere, Leo's tenth quality -- sacrifice -- was becoming brighter by the day.

He gasped sharply and opened his eyes, glancing up at the centaur who loomed over the fire. Firenze nodded.

"What is it?" Sirius asked. Firenze shook his head as if he were tossing a mane.

"You know well enough."

"Danger -- sacrifice -- the war increasing. But that could be -- "

"Tch!" Firenze made a swift, silencing noise. "I do not wish to know. It matters very little, in this place and to me."

"Then why show me?"

"Show you?" the centaur asked, a little contemptuously. "You saw for yourself, Sirius Black. I merely asked you to look."

"But why?"

Firenze gave the barest shrug. "Forewarning. It can be a tool, or a dangerous weapon. There is a dark time coming...the moon at last quarter on the longest night."

"The full moon on my birthday -- I know," Sirius said resignedly.

"Be guarded," Firenze warned. "We will have no more lessons until the spring."

"What? Why? We're safe here!"

"It is not a matter of safety. We will meet again after the longest night, if we meet ever again," Firenze said.

"What do you mean, IF?" Sirius asked, really worried now.

"We all will die; it is a natural law and good. Some of us will die sooner than others, that is all," Firenze continued. "I..." He paused, then looked even more grave than usual. "I have grown fond of you, insolent and ignorant as you are. You have farther to go in much shorter time; you cannot be weighed against a centaur, but must on your own merits, which are not entirely worthless. I will not waste more time or...attachment, on a student who may not live to see the next breeding season. It is folly."

Oddly, the first argument that leapt to Sirius' mind was not the fact that he wasn't going to die; it was entirely more academic.

"Not worth teaching anyone who might die? That's a bit limiting, isn't it?" he snarled. "I suppose the only reason you know divination is so that you'll always know what you're having for dinner tomorrow night."

"Divination is an art -- " Firenze began, his face darkening in anger.

"An art only people with a guarantee on life get to know?" Sirius asked.

"You are not afraid of death?"

"I'm not afraid of spending my time on people who might die," he growled. He stood and kicked snow over the fire, dousing it. "I'll see you in the New Year, then -- if you're willing to waste your time."

He didn't know whether Firenze watched him go back to the castle; from the sound of it, the centaur didn't move until he was completely out of earshot.

It had been a long day, anyway; he'd taught Remus' classes while Remus worked feverishly in the library, looking up everything and anything on phoenix myths and fire-purification with Harry and Hermione's help while Ron took notes for Hermione in classes. Sirius had even brought dinner up to the library, smuggling it into the Restricted Section past Madam Pince and a table full of rowdy second-years. Ron and Hermione had gone off to be disgusting with each other somewhere; Remus and Harry had been grateful but distracted, and after a hurried meal they both went home to chew over what they'd found with Tonks. Sirius, tired and a little annoyed, had gone down to see Firenze for his lesson and even that had turned out to be a waste and a frustration.

He returned to his rooms in the same cranky state, glad that he hadn't met anyone on the way, only to find Hermione waiting outside his door.

Sirius was grateful to Hermione, of course, for not throwing fits the way Ron had done. And truth be told, he liked her -- sort of. She was intelligent, which he could appreciate, and she didn't take any cack from anyone, which he certainly agreed with. On the other hand, she was bossy, imperious, loud, and something of a know-it-all. When he'd mentioned this to Remus, the older man had merely laughed and remarked that it reminded him of someone else he knew. Sirius assumed he meant McGonagall.

"Evening," he said shortly, as she stood aside so that he could unlock his door. "Need something?"

"I was wondering if we could talk," she said, biting her lip. "Um...privately."

"Sure," he sighed, gesturing her inside. "Have a seat. I'll make some tea."

"It won't take long," she said. "It's just I was wondering if you and Harry wanted to have dinner with us, next Thursday. In Hogsmeade."

"That all?" he asked.

"Yes," she said. "As a date, I mean."

"What?" he said, turning to face her.

"Well, you know. Me and Ron, and you and Harry. Without me setting you up with Katie Bell and that kind of thing," she said. "Now that we know. I thought it might be nice."

"Ah," he said, feeling unaccountably annoyed.

"Don't you think so?"

"Reckon so."

"It's only, I think it would help Ron sort of...not feel so strange about it, and you shouldn't either. You and Harry, I mean."

"Why would we feel strange about it?" he asked sharply.

"Sirius, I didn't mean it that way," she answered. "I just meant that you shouldn't feel odd about us knowing, that's all."

"There's nothing to know. It's just a...." he groped for polite words, then gave up. "It's just sex and all," he muttered.

"Really?" she asked.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I thought you were, um....seeing each other," she said, rubbing her fingertips together nervously. "Because, Harry...."

"What about Harry?" Sirius was aware he was barking questions at her, but he was exhausted and not in the mood to have a heart-to-heart about buggery with Hermione Granger.

"I just don't think he'd -- risk things this way -- people finding out, all the awful publicity there'd be because of who he is. And risk losing you, you're still important to him, he really likes you -- just for sex," she said. "It's fine and all, but it's not worth all that, is it?"

He opened his mouth for a sarcastic retort about Ron needing lessons if she really felt that way, but the rest of what she'd said hit him hard enough to stop him.

"That's Harry's choice," he muttered.

"But you'll come along and have dinner with us next Thursday, anyway?" she said.

"Sure. S'not like it'll be the first time. Meet you at Moony's office around six?"

"Okay. Thanks, Sirius," she said, still looking as if she were torn between fleeing and saying something even less appropriate. "I should go -- Prefects' meeting."

"Right you are," he replied, glad she hadn't decided to stay for tea. When she was gone, he locked the door again, drew the curtains on the windows, and sat down in a heap of blankets on his bed to drink his tea and read.

Once, in such a different time and place that it felt like long ago, he would have spent his evenings prowling the school and causing all kinds of trouble. He had hated to be alone in the dormitory or the common room and always went in search of someone to joke with or tease, some fight to pick. Regulus was reliable for a good screaming match; James or Peter never said no to a bit of mischief and Remus could usually be blackmailed into it. The school was a playground which always had some new treasure or secret to unveil.

But Regulus and James were dead; Peter and Remus were grown men on the opposite sides of a war. The school was his responsibility now; he had to protect it and its inhabitants from what went on beyond the front gates. He was nearly a professor himself, and not yet seventeen. Half the people he knew, it seemed like, were aware of a secret he'd once gone to immeasurable lengths to hide. He was too tired to cause trouble.

He reached out for the Maurauder's Map, in the pocket of his robes, hung on a peg near his bed. He found his private journal with very little effort and read the final entry again, words written a few months ago to him, twenty years ago to the rest of the world. Even decoded from the babble-speak, it read like someone else had written it.

Tired of lying, tired of hiding and running away. "I fancy you" should never be something one is afraid to say.

The map replying in Remus' handwriting, Remus' voice. No, you should not be afraid to say it, if it's true.

I don't know if it's true, really, I'm not sure how to discover if it's true. I wonder if this is something someone did to me, not something that's true at all. I wish it was; then I could get it broken, like with a Healer or something and I wouldn't be afraid to tell them because it's just a hex.

Remus and James spoke together in reply: We love you, Sirius, and it doesn't matter to us....Moony's right, we just don't want to see you hurt.

And his own words were so bitter and afraid.

Maybe not, but I don't think I should be so honest with you. It's not a hex or a curse, I know that and I oughtn't to try and indulge in some daft fantasy that it's not. I fancy boys; it's unnatural and freakish and I hate it and I'll never be able to tell anyone, not anyone, but it's the truth and you can't say no to the truth. And I'd rather live alone my whole life and never once have any kind of sex I'd actually enjoy or fall in love with anyone than pretend, so I guess that's that. I'm me and I'll always be me and there's nothing to be done so I just have to decide what I want the rest of my life to be about.

Maybe I'll buy a motorbike.

He rubbed his eyes and smiled a bit to himself at that last part. Harry told him that he had, in fact, and charmed it to fly; with hindsight he could see himself quite clearly pouring all the energy and frustration of his situation into something physical, something he could touch.

He missed his own life, even now. Even with all the misery he had felt, even knowing that in another life he was destined for a horrific life in Azkaban and a pointless death at the hands of that bitch Bellatrix (and if he ever met her again he'd gladly return the favour), even if it had been a hard had been his.

He cleared the map and folded it up, laying it aside resignedly. The words were in his head now, at any rate.

Would you trade Harry for your past? Would you trade being Nigel Padfoot for being that Sirius Black again?

He fell asleep without an answer.

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