Warning: expletives, violence.


8.

The leaden weight of paralysed limbs

And lonesome empty sealed space

Mixed into loam where the image strived

Of merry prancing

In mind,

In body, after time.

The faces came with names, the places - with the talks

And ebbed. The filly will remember;

I, on my own, would not.

He speaks of thorny lot.

For once, I'd rather let it slip away.

Monday, December 6, 1976, 7:07am

Why? Oh, why was it always like this?

Why was it so difficult to get up right away? No 'five more minutes' which turned almost into two hours, for fuck's sake! And why did he have to serve detention before breakfast? Neither Prongs nor Padfoot ever scored the morning ones! It was so unfair! And now he was late and not gonna have time to eat before the first class. Fantastic! Five more minutes, his arse.

'E-ex-cuse me…'

And why was it always him who got the Owlery? He'd even agree to switch with Sirius. Surely, cleaning the bathrooms (in the evening, dammit!) wasn't any worse than shovelling bird shit. And Quidditch ban couldn't bother someone who didn't play.

'Ahem.'

Remus got an early moon, the poor bastard. That he didn't envy in the least. Moony had to wait alone until they could join him at night.

'Ahem! Excuse me.'

Changing with Prongs would've been ideal, though. To polish some dusty candelabras in a room that didn't stink of the foulest waste… And James wasn't suspended from the team. How Padfoot bemoaned, ha! ('Yes, Prongs didn't duel the Snakes but - still! - he was there, surely you can see that, Wormtail! It's so unfair!') McGonagall even allowed James to Hogsmeade. Eh, to be a Potter… Unfair, indeed.

'Xcuse me! You-!'

He jerked, breaking eye contact with the floor, and spun around. A pink-cheeked witch with blue and bronze scarf froze. Her expression shifted from annoyed to embarrassed.

'Hi! Uh.'

Behind the girl, two other Ravenclaws whispered and giggled, throwing inconspicuous glances his way. In an empty corridor.

'You are Peter Pettigrew, right?'

He nodded, straightening to his full height. The girl was half a head taller. Peter sighed in irritation. Could anyone but the first-years be shorter than him?

'Great! Could you pass this to Sirius Black for me?'

The bird all but threw an envelope at him. It was pink and reeked of gingerbread, his gran's powder and wet dust. Peter wanted to rip the seal and read the note there and then. The witch didn't waste time.

'Hey! Do not open! It's for Sirius Black, okay? You are his friend, aren't you?'

She was quite pretty: dark brown eyes and long lashes, cheeks round and blushing, button nose, plump lips. Too bad she was so darn tall.

Peter cleared his throat. 'Yeah, we're mates.'

'Pass it to him, will you? To Sirius Black, did you get that?'

Oh, he got it alright. Peter dragged the uppity twat by the hay she called hair until she screamed apologies.

'Did ya get it?!'

He blinked, forced back to reality of watching her stupid face. 'f course.'

'Thanks! You're sweet!' The witch had the grace to smile, at least. She bounced off, swarmed by her friends. Sweet, his arse. Peter cringed at the stinky letter and stuffed it into his pocket. Padfoot's fans were becoming rather creative.

'What are you doing?'

Peter flinched at Filch's cantankerous tone. Fuckety-fuck! 'Nothing! I was just going to meet you at the Owlery!'

Suspicious beady eyes squinted at him.

'A likely story!' the ugly bugger shouted, latching onto the scruff of his robes and pulling Peter along the corridor. 'You are an hour late! Skiving off! Isn't that how you young lazy folk call it, eh? Some hard work and pain would do you good, oh yes… I will speak to the Headmaster, you'll see… A few days hanging by the wrists and the duelling in the hallways will all but cease, if you ask me… Move along now. I dare you to try to run off again. It'll only get worse.'

Filch let go of Peter's collar once they reached the yard of the West Tower. Outside was colder than in the heart of his father's second ex-wife. Snow glowed in the gloomy darkness of the morning. The chilling wind sneaked under his winter robes. Peter tripped every other step because the nasty sadist kept nudging him between the shoulder blades all the way to the blasted bird-shit sanctuary.

'There you go!' Filch said, pushing him inside the Owlery and pointing at the shovel in the corner. 'All yours now. Hurry up and get to work! And no funky magic tricks, you hear me! Bet you'll think twice before breaking the school rules again, won't you?'

Peter grabbed the utensil and struck Filch across his ugly-arse face. The resulting crack was both sickening and gratifying. With a blink, the fantasy melted away.

The caretaker hobbled outside, muttering nonsense under his breath. 'Hard work and, better yet, pain, eh! The best teachers, oh yes…'

'What an arsehole,' Peter whispered, sighing in relief when the door shut. His breaths came out in small clouds of white mist. He shivered and looked around.

The owls produced no more waste than the usual. 'Missed me, you little wieners?' Several birds screeched. One flew, landing on his shoulder. Feathers flopped him on the cheek. The talons gently poked his skin. 'Hermes, little buddy, come on, get off.' The owl refused, having found a perfect perch. 'If you shit on me again I swear to Merlin I'll roast your feathery arse.' Hermes hooted.

The work was mind-numbing and familiar. Peter cleaned, hoping someone would come and send a secret note or learn a terrible truth about their long-lost twin from a letter sent by a father, presumed dead. Or anything to take him away from the shitty task!

Snivellus stormed inside.

Okay, anything but that!

The Slytherin obliviously stalked towards the staircase. Peter exhaled as quietly as possible and stepped further into the shadowed piles of droppings. The stench was rank.

Snape attached a letter on the bird's leg and whispered destination, glancing around. Peter crossed the fingers. His heart shuddered painfully in his chest and throat, amplified by the silence and the lack of fresh air. Peter blinked through the white specs in his vision, barely containing a sigh when Snivellus finally decided to leave. A moment in such company was already too long.

The unpleasant encounter could've ended peacefully for all parties. Peter would've even finished the shitty assignment without further complaint. But! Always, there was a but, innit?

A Hufflepuff lass rushed inside the tower at the same time Snivellus was buggering off and the two met in the middle. The girl shrieked as they collided. Peter would have, too, if he had to touch Snape so intimately.

Should he transform while they untangled from one another? The owls would hunt a rat but a quick death might've been preferable to accidentally getting caught in a crossfire against Snape without his friends. He sucked at Defence!

'Look where you're going, you foolish twit! And get your filthy mitts off!'

Ha! Mitts! Off! Snape was such a prude. The Hufflepuff was gorgeous: dark lustrous curls, olive skin, flashing eyes. The glower slightly spoiled the view but wasn't critical.

'Give that back!' The witch lunged at Snape. Her mien was scarier than McGonagall's when the professor found them in the hallway fighting the Slytherins while Sirius's cousin mumbled nonsense (about Bella Luna and Nut or something) on the floor and James perved on the unconscious Evans.

A fantasy bloomed, boosted by the live performance. The girl, a Valkyrie, trashed Snape to bits like a wild beast. In reality, Snivellus danced smoothly away from his impending doom. The snake had moves!

'Why's that? Have something to hide?'

Snape wasn't a very smart fella. He went and taunted the Valkyrie. Who did that?

'None of your business! Give it back!'

Perhaps, Peter misnamed the girl. She may have charged with an abandon but the power of that screech! The Valkyrie, rather the Siren wrestled with Snape. The struggle for a scrap of paper was impressive. Snivelus's sleeve ripped with an obscenely loud noise. He shoved the Siren to the ground.

'Look what you've done, you daft girl!'

Peter rolled his eyes. The dude had magic, hadn't he? Snape drew the wand. The menacing scowl was an overkill for a piece of torn fabric.

'Stay down or I'll teach you a lesson with my wand.'

A lesson with his what now? Peter slapped the palms over his mouth to silence a hysterical giggle. Luckily, the Siren kept loudly demanding her top-secret letter back.

'I will curse you if you don't stay down!'

'No! Give it to me! Or I'll scream!'

What was she doing before, then?

'And who is going to hear you?'

Goodness but Snivellus was nasty. If only he could change the course of the rivers. But shite would do. What did Flitwick squeak about? Swish and flick…

Please, sweet mother of Circe, don't let him screw up.

'Wingardium Leviosa!'

Ultimately, it was not his best move. The bird waste leviosaed alright. While Peter was knee-deep in it. He barely held back from vomiting on his robes. How gross. Snivellus and the Siren evidently shared the sentiment. Even though Snape was the one who got doused, the witch's face twisted in such a grimace his gran, had she lived, would've warned that it could get stuck that way. Peter dismissed the thought and ran to the girl.

'Come on! We gotta get out of here!'

'No! The letter! I have to send it now!'

The Siren jerked away from him to dive into shit. Okay but that one hurt.

'Where is it? Where-! Where is it!?' she chanted, digging though the smelly mountain.

Sweet Merlin.

'Woman, have you magic or not?!' he screamed. 'Accio stupid letter!'

The envelope broke through the droppings and flew to him, shitty and utterly empty. The Siren snatched it faster than his dad ran from an argument. What was she doing sending empty envelopes?

Snivellus sat up. The mountain exploded around him, splattering poop all over the walls of the Owlery. How was he going to clean that?

'Pettigrew!' Snape's voice was more of a snake's hiss. 'You're going to pay for this.'

Luckily, the wizard had to search for his wand. Unluckily, Peter sucked at defence. How did Professor Belby teach them last year? Stab and flick. Please, by the sacred lacy knickers of Circe, don't let him botch it!

'Stupefy!' Snape collapsed. Pity, there was no time for a victory dance. 'Come on, you idiot witch! We hafta go!' The Siren ignored his desperate calls. The Slytherin was already stirring and groaning like a bear awoken from hibernation in a pile of shit. He was looking for his wand in no time. Peter's chances to get thoroughly cursed rose exponentially.

Why, oh why?

'Trulla Ledo!' The stupid shovel didn't move. It was charmed resistant to magic by McGonagall, which he forgot. Shite! What else?

'Bubonibus Morsus!' Only three of the feathery wieners answered the command to peck Snape. It didn't derail the bugger. Snape excelled at the ancient defensive technique of excessive hand-waving. He produced an impressively verbose string of curses while he did it as well. Peter paused mid-charm in respectful awe.

'Ha!' Snivellus shouted, zeroing on his wand.

Right!

'Accio Snape's wand!'

This idea wasn't his best either. With the wand came its owner. Snape's lovely face could only compare to Medusa's for all it even managed to turn Peter into stone. He unfroze at the last moment and ducked under the Slytherin's tackle, throwing both wands in the corner. Better far away than cursed.

The Siren rushed by in a twirl of yellow-cuffed robes without a second glance. What a bitch!

Snape didn't care for his wand or the girl, who started the whole mess. He yanked on Peter's collar, bashing his poor head on the wooden floor. At least, it was relatively soft.

'I got you, you nasty little bugger! No Potter, Black or Lupin to hide behind and titter anymore!'

They rolled around, kicking every reachable part of each other. It could've been fun if Snape pulled his punches. The arsehole. Peter choked on blood from his split lip and spat it out. Snivellus's eyes weren't the aim but he took the opening and shoved the snake off. The wands were somewhere on the other side of the Owlery. The exit loomed close, promising sweet relief. His choice was obvious.

A gust of cold air struck him in the flushed cheeks and throbbing lips. Peter tripped and nearly fell in the snow.

'Where do you think you're going!?' Snape bellowed from behind.

'Sod off, Snivellus!'

'You stupid coward!'

'Better cower than hafta touch your manky self even for a fight!'

'You're not getting away, Pettigrew!'

'Yeah? Watch me run for it!'

Peter made a mistake glancing over his shoulder. A snowball hit him square between the brows. And it hurt like a bitch!

'Ha!' Snape yelled and hurled another ball. It walloped Peter in the ear. A freezing blob got inside his robes and the sweater, chilling his toasty shoulder.

'Fuck!' Peter screamed, snatching the snow from the ground, compressing it as tightly as possible and flinging at Snape's idiotic face.

Had someone said that he would ever engage in a snow fight with Snivellus of all people, Peter would've cackled, Padfoot style. Alas, it happened and he didn't know whether to laugh, cry or scream in horror. The worst part was that Snape seemed to unwittingly relish it as well. After a while, they ended up tangled in another exchange of flailing punches. The Slytherin came out on top. Literally.

Even more than a snow fight, Snivellus seemed to enjoy squeezing the life out of him. Peter writhed, trying to dislodge the tightening choke-hold. The Slytherin's expression twisted with insidious glee.

'Leggo,' Peter said through a wheeze. Black spots bloomed in the corners of his eyes. He couldn't move his hands, pinned by Snape's knees. His brain felt swollen, the pulse throbbed unpleasantly in the ears, tears leaked from the eyes that were being pushed out of their sockets by the pressure. He tried to gasp to no avail. He couldn't breathe! Terrible fright hit Peter like an avalanche, piercing and devouring.

Snape wouldn't kill him, would he?

'That's right Pettigrew, you should be afraid of me.'

'You maggot. Leggo, leggo!' He couldn't breathe! He couldn't breathe!

'It'll teach you how to laugh at me.'

The unrelenting wave of dread mutated into an outright terror and panic. He was going to die! It was no joke anymore! Peter thrashed with a renewed vigour. He managed to dislodge Snape's knees from his arms and smashed the bugger everywhere he could reach. It was no use. The Slytherin didn't budge. Peter searched his robes with the increasingly sluggish hands. There must've been something!

A paper creased and ripped in his clawed fist. Peter thrust it into Snape's nose, hoping to distract him. The snake's death-hold slacked. Peter sucked in the air and rolled to the side, coughing and dry heaving. His stomach was empty which made nausea both more tolerable and painful. His neck throbbed and constricted, the fantom spidery fingers still digging into the flesh. His hands shook with heavy tremors, barely supporting him. Darkness fuzzed the edges of sight, tunnelling surroundings into a singular window of nonsensical white matter. All sounds mixed into an irritating chime, the kind that came from the old clocks his mother liked to hoard. Peter tasted iron on the gums. Sickness overcame him again as the tide of blind terror ebbed. The white matter was freezing under his cheek.

'What the fuck, Snape!?' Peter tried to shout. A weak croak could do no justice his indignation. 'You barmy motherfucking arsemonger! Were you trying to kill me?'

The Slytherin didn't reply.

Peter gasped more greedy breaths. His vision sharpened. Snow burned the tender skin of his temple. He sat up.

Snivellus was kneeling, features slack. His fingers kneaded a pink paper. He brought it close to his face, sniffed, (which… eww!) wild eyes flying across the text, and put it down on an exhale. Peter shuddered. Snape's wistful expressions and sighs were the last things he ever wished to witness.

Peter rose. Anger surged through his veins in a steady rush of need for retaliation.

'You tried to fucking choke me!' he hollered and kicked Snape in his stupid nose. It gave with a satisfying crunch and gushed with blood. Snivellus yelped, collapsing.

Peter blinked. The scene didn't rewind. He stood above the moaning mess of a wizard. He truly smashed his heel into someone's clock. Heady warmth and vicious gratification swelled in his gut. Was this how James felt after a duel won? He could get used to it.

In a happy daze, Peter swaggered back to the Owlery. His wand was in the corner. Feeling daring and strong, he waved it completing his detention task with a single swipe. As if Filch or McGonagall would ever find out. Clear of the mess, Snape's wand laid at his feet. He could go and curse Snivellus into the next week. Or he could snap it. His mind played both actions on a loop. A shriek from outside jerked Peter from the daydream.

'Severus!' a witch yelled. 'What happened to you!?'

Fuck!

He snuck to the exit and peeked. Lily Evans knelt before Snivellus, fussing over his bloody nose.

'Sev! Who did this?'

Snape was going to grass!

But the Slytherin didn't. 'Lily!' he said. 'I can't stop thinking about her!'

'Wha-'

'I don't think I can stand it!'

'What are you talking about, Sev?!' Evans yelled, shaking him.

'You wouldn't understand… She even knows I exist…' he said, waving the pink paper in front of her nose.

'Oh, dear Lord, I think you've got a concussion! Who are you talking about?'

'Evelyn Pickering…'

The redhead gaped, mouth ajar, eyes bulging. No doubt, Snivellus was making the gross face again. Peter snorted and hid when Evans's head snapped up.

Fuck!

'Okay…' she said. 'Just wait there a moment.' Her voice was getting closer! What could he do? What could he do!?

Peter blew the air he didn't notice he was holding and transformed. The bleeding wand landed next to him, huge and very much separated from his rat form. How did James take it with him?

There was a swoosh and a screech and a thud. The bleeding owls! Wormtail bit into the wood and ran like never before in his life. He darted between Evans's feet. She squeaked and flopped on her bottom. Peter had no time to giggle. With a stream of expletives which in Rat sounded like a squeaking chatter, Wormtail bolted across the snowy yard, lunging in zig-zags every time he heard another swoosh. Which happened every leap he took. Just how many wieners were after him?

Wormtail considered briefly hiding in Snape's lap. 'Evelyn…' the wizard said and voiced an embarrassingly yearning moan. Peter dismissed the idea with a hiss as he dashed past. Better be an owl's breakfast.

The entrance to the castle loomed ahead. The heavy wooden doors were closed.

Fuckkk!

Wormtail chattered more insults, jumping in circles to avoid the sharp claws. He spotted a drainpipe, squealed in delight and dove in. The opening was just right to fit with the wand between the teeth but soon enough Peter found that he couldn't slow his fall down the pipe. He tried to scramble against the sleek walls without success. His wand stuck on a piece of jagged metal and splintered, digging painfully in the seams of his mouth. Wormtail cried out and let go of it. He gained velocity as the slide became steeper and steeper. Terror was a distant but constant pulse in his little heart. He guessed rats didn't experience feelings with the same intensity as humans.

He was going to die in a pipe. Or smash into the ground on the harsh exit. His rat body would become food for Mrs. Norris.

Would he turn human upon death? At least, he got to kick Snape in his pig-ugly nose once! James would've been proud.

He'd be with gran. Would his dad even care? Mom wouldn't, she's got her stupid hoard.

Fucking Snivellus.

Wormtail didn't want his last thoughts to be of Snape. But as he plummeted through the black narrow tunnel he couldn't not blame the snake. And that Hufflepuff bitch.

He shot out of the pipe, prepared to slam into the stone floor but ended up bouncing against a soft surface. The mattress he landed on was covered with a soft red and gold kilt. The room was huge with several open windows and bookcases. The air was fresh, faintly smelling of catnip and lilies.

'Please give me a moment, Valerie,' someone said with a familiar burr. Wormtail panicked sneaking under the bed. A smooth expanse of stone slid to the side and in walked McGonagall.

Circe's revered left tit! What luck!

The Head of his House went to a bookcase none the wiser. He shot towards the exit as quietly as possible. The bedroom was connected to McGonagall's office as many Gryffindors bid on. Padfoot owed him ten galleons. At the table by the window stood a woman in dark green robes smelling a lily that bloomed in the vase. The door was closed. Wormtail darted to a shadowed corner.

Someone knocked.

'Come in,' the witch in green said and turned.

Sirius's cousin ambled inside. The bleeding door shut after her with a click.

'Professor McGonagall, forgive the early visit,' the girl said slowly, offering a scroll to the witch. She took it with a dubious smile and opened her mouth but Black kept talking. 'I have finished the essay for the extra credit and wanted to submit it in person. Also, I would like to thank you for giving me the chance to catch up on my wandwork before you gave your assessment to the Headmaster. I understand your position on my placement and appreciate the concern.'

Each word of Black's speech was articulated with precision. Her gaze bore into the recipient's eyes with earnest gratitude. How she could've missed that the witch in green wasn't McGonagall Peter didn't comprehend. Yes, the woman had similar hairstyle and wore glasses but everything else was starkly different.

'Ahh, umm, my dear, I am professor Villeneuve. Professor McGonagall should be here shortly.'

Black's expression emptied. Silently she stared at the witch for a few moments, blinking. It was impossible to say what played in her mind.

Black sucked in a breath. 'I ap'l'gise. I would 'ppreciate… if you passed this scroll to Professor McGonagall.' She turned and strolled out. Wormtail darted through the closing gap and bolted down the corridor keeping to the walls. He spotted an alcove ahead. Finally, he could transform back. Being a rat for too long without his friends gave him anxiety.

The reek of bird-shit and sewage filled the musty air behind the tapestry. Peter couldn't hold back the dry-heaves. A violent coughing fit followed. His throat and lip ached, eyes were leaking and he couldn't breathe. Peter threw the heavy drapery open and stumbled into the hallway.

'Pettigrew!' chocking on a gasp, Peter hastily straightened at Professor McGonagall's sharp tone.

'If my memory doesn't betray me, you are to be predicting someone's demise in Divination classroom in ten minutes,' she said, pursing the lips so hard they turned all wrinkly and white. Bad sign. Hallowed Circe's stockings, why him? Peter gulped down a lump in the back of his tongue and nodded.

'Why are you on the first floor? Where is your hat again, might I add? And in what exactly did you roll to be that filthy?' she said, sniffed the air and recoiled with disgust. 'And what is that foul stench?'

Peter wet his lips and gagged at the taste, wiping his mouth with a sleeve. Not that it was much cleaner.

'Well?' Professor McGonagall said tartly.

'I… uhh, got lost?'

'Shall I turn you into a map or, perhaps, a bathtub? You will sort yourself at once! Shall I hear from Professor Peidus that you have not attended his class today you will serve detentions with me personally until the end of the year! You have been warned, Pettigrew.'

'Yes, ma'am,' Peter said, nodding frantically, and stepped aside to let the witch pass. She didn't move, watching him with an arched brow.

'Well, what are you waiting for? Clean up and run along.'

Circe's holy pinkies. Peter cleared his throat. 'I- I broke my wand, Professor.'

'Does your foolishness know no bounds?' she said sharply, drawing her wand. He couldn't help but flinch at the sting of the cleansing spell. 'I will have words about your behaviour with your parents. Off you go, now!'

Peter hurried to the staircase, groaning inwardly about the unfairness of everything.

The route to the North Tower was endless! His broken wand was stuck somewhere in the pipes! McGonagall couldn't just leave him alone!

She would have words with his parents… Ha! Good luck with getting a letter out of his mom. And dad… Would dad still care about him? Rumour said he's got a new wife and a baby. Peter shook his head. Dad promised they were going to spend time together this summer. They'd go to Kent and start renovations on the cottage. His cottage… He wouldn't have to live in that garbage dump ever again.

Sharp incense smoke, sipping through the open door, made Peter sneeze.

'Ah, Mister Pettigrew, do come in. Share with us your insight. Please, the first thing that comes to mind.'

Peidus and his superstitious nonsense. Peter coughed in his fist, glad he rehearsed before the mirror in case he ever was late for Divination.

'The answer is in the asking. We live and breathe, sacrificing the present for the future. We shall embrace the spirit of whimsy, for no-one is safe from their own soiled undergarments!'

The classroom replied with a few snorts and yawns. So far, Peter's prediction garnered more support than Baethan Stebbins's last week. Admittedly, the Hufflepuff was always late. On Wednesdays. After lunch. When everyone was awake.

Or his line was boring. Well, whatever.

'Splendid! Do take your sit. Your partner was getting lonely,' Professor Peidus said and turned to Marlene. 'Miss McKinnon, I believe the universe itself gave you the answer.' The witch snorted, rolled her eyes and returned to glaring at Peter. He sent her a sour grimace.

'Now! You well know the ritual. Swear no ill will, shuffle, cut the deck and draw. You may begin. Yes, Mister Wilkes, you will have to endure my expertise. Mister Snape must be facing a terrible trial this morning.'

A trial of bird shite and a heel in the face. Peter bit his lips to keep from tittering and tasted iron on his teeth. The cut bled again.

Kellaway was already picking his cards.

'I was supposed to cut it, you wanker,' Peter said, settling down.

'Nah, Pettigrew, I'm so gonna predict your gruesome demise.'

He drew the Ten of Cups.

'Nice!' Peter pumped up the air. 'If only your readings ever reflected reality.'

Kellaway ignored him, flipping through the book in search for the card's meaning.

'Blah-blah, another of the most uplifting draws. Nya-nya, live in the moment, seize the day. You know this all. Now you do mine.' Kellaway shut the heavy tome with a loud thump and pushed the deck across the table.

'Arse,' Peter said, shuffling. He let his partner cut and started the three-card spread. 'Hmm, in the past you have reversed Nine of Wands. You were freaking out about something.'

Kellaway met his inquisitive glance with a shrug and a lazy smirk.

'I didn't know who I liked better, Vance or Kirke's little sister.'

Peter snickered. More like, the angry librarian or the Slytherin's best duelist. 'Sure. Eight of Pentacles for your present. You have to work hard, Darcy. Good grief! With all the slack you have to pick up I won't be surprised if you failed every subject.'

Kellaway kicked him in the shin. Peter winced and rubbed the throbbing spot with the other leg. 'Mind your own damn records, Petey,' he said. 'What's in my future, then? Pretty bird with a blade, just my taste.'

'Reversed Queen. A woman in your life who you shouldn't cross.'

'Ahh, so many possible suspects.'

Peter collected the cards and shuffled the deck. His palms grew sweaty, the heart jumped into his mouth. He drew two cards and cleared his throat.

'Say-' Peter had to swallow to hide a croak. 'Say, Darcy, did your mother get my letter?'

Kellaway lunged suddenly and gabbed him by the front of the robes. The deck slipped to the floor from his shaky fingers.

'You call me Darcy one more time and I'll fecken end you, got it?' Peter nodded. Kellaway let go and patted his cheek twice. 'Peter, Peter, threaten you a bit and all fight leaves you in a whoosh.' He sat back, smugly lounging in his armchair. 'My mom wants nothing to do with you or your disgusting pig of a father.'

Peter clenched his jaws against the onslaught of raging hatred. Who did he think he was with his stupid name and annoying attitude!

'Fuck you! And your stupid filthy whore of a mother! She stole my dad from me! You stole him from me! The two of you had the time of your life kicking me about, sneering and spitting venom. He left you too now, and you fucking deserved it! I'll make sure you get nothing out of it! Ever!'

Kellaway gave no reaction.

Oh.

He replied in his mind again.

'Got something to say, Pete?'

He shook the head, swallowing the resentment and hot-coaled anger, and tapped his pockets. A cold dish would serve Kellaway better.

'The Farewell Feast before the Holidays. Don't touch the eggnog.'

Kellaway grinned as if in victory. Peter imagined slamming the munky smirk into the glass table between them until it gushed with blood. 'You'll speak to her for me?' he said instead, offering a candy.

Peidus dismissed the class, assigning homework and warning them about the dangers of foresight.

'Can't promise anything, Pettigrew,' Kellaway said and unwrapped the sweet, popping it into his mouth. 'Wassat, then? Scrummy!'

'A special recipe. In reconciliation.'

'Sure thing.'

Peter stayed behind to clean up his mess. All deck was face up safe for one card. He turned it. The Tower mocked him.

The long way to the dungeons was at least unhurried. Peidus gave plenty of extra time for them to get to another class. He still was nearly late. Potions were as eventful as usual. James yawned every five seconds, Sirius sat brooding about something. Slughorn forgot to reprimand those who forgot their hats. Peter had to share the station with Snape's partner which sucked. Wilkes was as dumb as he was ugly. Rumour was his detention included following the groundskeeper in a Forbidden forest at night. Unlucky sod. Peter offered him candy as well.

Shoulda better threw him away together with the four snake-bitches, who attacked Evans and Sirius's cousin, what's her name again. But no, they got scot-free. Peter peeked at the Slytherin bints. Detention was too little a price for a vicious attack even if no visible wound appeared on Evans.

Rosamund Travers as if felt his gaze. She met his eyes and beamed like a little sun. Such beauty, such villainy. Flint joined her with a sneer, Talkalot - a crude gesture (pureblood manners, his arse), Doherty - disinterest.

Bitches. Had he a wand he would've cursed their stupid potion.

Shite

The wand.

The lunch finally came and he couldn't stop the mounting dread. What was he going to do about the wand?

'Merlin, Peter, can you stop shoving food in your gob like it's the last time you eat?' Padfoot said, poking his lunch with no enthusiasm.

'Wha-? 'M hungry.' A piece of potato mush fell out of his mouth on his robe.

James clapped Sirius on the shoulder, waving a banger around on his fork. The sauce splatted in the middle of the table between them. 'Worry not, Wormtail. I support no table manners as well.'

Peter snorted, wiping his lips. Speaking of support…

'Ya know-'

'Mirach's got a friend,' Sirius said, glaring someplace behind him. James followed Padfoot's glance. Peter rolled his eyes. He was tired of their obsession with the witch.

'That's Jordan's bird, innit?' Prongs said. Sirius grunted in reply.

'Ya know how this morning I had detention-' Someone's cough from behind interrupted him.

'Pettigrew,' Professor McGonagall said. Peter straightened in his seat and turned around. The nerves gripped his hands and they shook, spilling the pumpkin juice. He had to hastily put the goblet down. Professor studied him with severe disapproval. 'Please follow me to my office.' She walked ahead.

'What's this all about?' James said. Sirius never lost focus on his cousin.

'I was just about to tell you-'

'Pettigrew! Now if it pleases you.'

It didn't. 'Of course, Professor,' Peter said and made scary eyes at Prongs, who grinned back.

Their walk was strained with an uneasy silence. Peter chewed on his nail, thinking of all possible offends he could've committed. Did she find out he used magic in the Owlery?

Professor ushered him inside in her usual brisk manner.

'You appear to have a free period before the Herbology class, is that correct?' Peter nodded, swallowing. Was she going to make him clean something? 'I have contacted your father and he shall arrive shortly to accompany you to purchase a new wand.'

Peter gaped. His father? He couldn't stop a squeak and a smile. 'Thank you very much, Professor!'

She shook her head in exasperation.

'Make certain you return by quarter past two sharp. The groundskeeper Hagrid will meet you at the gate. Good luck.'

'Yes, ma'am! Thank you, ma'am!' he said, bouncing on the heels, helpless against the overwhelming rush of joy. He'd see his dad!

As the door closed after Professor McGonagall, the fireplace roared green and Joseph Pettigrew stepped through - grin, immaculate robes and all.

'Da!' Peter shouted, throwing himself into his father's embrace. A rumble of laughter under his ear was a heavenly lullaby. The arms around him were strong and secure, the hug - the safest he ever felt. Even You-Know-Who wasn't as scary in his father's embrace.

'Aren't you a bit too old for cuddles?' Peter shook the head and looked up, beaming. His father chuckled, messing his hair. 'Ready?'

The Diagon Alley changed drastically in the few months he hadn't visited. Many shops were closed, one - burnt to the ground. The Daily Prophet reported a potion accident, but everyone knew the owner of the Apothecary was a Muggle-born. Christmas decorations appeared scarce, the atmosphere was sombre. The gloom and cold seeped in the very stones of the buildings. Peter clang to his father's side, anxious.

Ollivander, on the other hand, didn't change one bit. Peter was certain the barmy wizard looked exactly the same as five years ago. The new wand fit nicely in his palm, made from the mischievous Dogwood, with the core of the dragon heartstring. His da clapped him on the back with a proud smile. The day was only getting better.

They stopped at the new ice cream parlour. Peter chattered about his classes, about James and Sirius and Remus, about the Hogwarts gossip. His dad nodded and shook his head and laughed at the ice cream that splatted on the table off of his spoon during one of the exited hand waves.

'I can't wait for summer, da!' Peter said, joggling the feet under the table. 'We'd make the house look wicked!'

'Yes, yes, Peter. Lizzy already made the arrangements. We'll start right after you take off from Hogwarts Express if you'd like.' He laughed.

Peter didn't feel like laughing. The steady flame of contentment was doused with a slimy sense of foreboding.

'Lizzy?'

'Ah, yes. Such a lovely woman, you will adore each other.'

Yeah, without a doubt.

'She- she'll be helping us?' Why was his voice so faint? Why couldn't he say he didn't want anyone there but the two of them?

'But of course! We're all planning to move in. The baby is well on the way. You are going to have a baby brother, Peter.' His dad's face softened in a tender expression of wonder. As if he never had a son before…

Crushing weight of resentment and disappointment chased away Peter's appetite.

'You said it was going to be my house.'

The icecream was melting into an unappetising puddle in the cup.

'Yes, of course. And we will live there together as a family.'

It was supposed to be his space, his inheritance. Dad promised, he promised! Peter's throat clogged, his eyes stung. He was going to cry like a ninny.

'I need to- loo, I'm going to the loo,' he said and all but run. The bathroom mirror offered advice how to treat… Peter cursed the bugger silent, not bothering to let it finish. He washed his face and practised the convincing smiles. The act was familiar as was the hurt it produced in his chest.

'Peter? It's time to leave. Your Professor didn't seem like a woman to cross.'

'Yes, da!'

They apparated to the gate and it was time. Peter crushed his father in a hug. When he was younger he wanted to live under his skin, to never be apart again. Little changed since.

'Why don't you choose me for once? We don't need anyone, just you and me, father and son. How long I wanted just you in my life. Why can't you understand it?!' Peter said into the fancy robes, burrowing desperately into that safe embrace.

Father said nothing, clapped him on the back two times and pushed away gently.

'Alright there?'

Again, responding in his head.

He was an idiot.

His da cupped his cheek. 'Son, it'll be better this time I promise you.' And he looked so certain, so determined to fulfil it. A hesitant hope budded from Peter's undying desire to believe him. He wouldn't lie. What happened with Kellaway's mother was just an accident, a moment of poor judgement. Peter smiled and couldn't tell if it was genuine or the mirror-practised lift of lips.

The groundskeeper was as huge as he remembered. The wizard asked him questions, friendly and curious. Peter was in no mood to talk and escaped to the Greenhouses at the first opportunity. Herbology passed in a fog. Defence - even quicker, with Kellaway absent, most definitely busy on his date with the loo. (Peter snickered.)

At dinner, Prongs was busy demonstratively ignoring Evans while relatively subtly throwing pining glances her way. Sirius retold a gossip he heard about bloody-nosed, starry-eyed Snivellus being escorted to the Headmaster. Peter snorted and recounted the events of his crazy morning. James cackled so loudly, Professor McGonagall rose from her seat and asked him to tone it down. Sirius gaped with a bewildered grin then clapped his back painfully and counted ten golden coins straight out of his pocket. Marlene tried to snatch one and accidentally started a food fight. Most of the Gryffindors got detentions from the infuriated McGonagall, who just couldn't believe their nerve to start the mess again! Byrne received one as well for her explosive stunt, which provided a nice accompaniment at the time - like an artillery imitation. Prongs and Padfoot left for their cleaning sessions, whinging and groaning.

Overall, it was the same old Monday evening in Hogwarts.

Except, they had a full moon that night and Sirius's cousin was going to show up. Peter thought the princess would get too scared to come. She was so delicate. Running with a werewolf was no stroll in the garden. It didn't suit any pureblood bint no matter what one said.

The witch showed up despite the late hour. Sirius exploded into activity all but dragging the stumbling chit along. Were he in Padfoot form, his tail would've flown off already. James grinned, messed his hair, winked back at Peter and hurried to conceal the three of them from the view. Wormtail couldn't help the return smile even though the witch took his place under the cloak. Oh, well, the rat-dash wasn't the worst kind of travel.

They separated by the Whomping Willow. The witch transformed, uncaring about the violent tree branches slamming the ground close to them or if anyone could see her. It was dark but the stars and the layer of snow provided enough visibility for the Ravenclaws or anyone who had to use a school owl.

'Are you sure you'll find your way to the meadow?' Sirius said, petting the filly's muzzle. She snorted and bumped him on a cheek. Padfoot barked a short laugh. 'Yeah, yeah, you can manage by yourself, I remember.' He watched her disappear between the trees. 'I just can't let anything happen to you,' he whispered.

'Aww, Padfoot, becoming such a family man,' James said, throwing an arm around his shoulders.

Peter joined on his other side. 'She'll be fine. If anything horse's hooves can pack a mean punch.' He rubbed his jaw that suddenly flared with a fantom pain.

James erupted with cackles. 'You sound like you have experience, Wormtail!'

'Nuh-uh! That story I'll take to the grave.'

'I thought we had a no secrets rule between us, good old pals,' Prongs said, trying to grab him by the sleeve and dragging groaning Padfoot along. Peter danced away with a chortle.

'Never heard of that! It's your stupid fault for believing such nonsense.'

'What is this I hear? I'd never keep anything from you, Pete. Padfoot, you tell him.'

Sirius grunted under James's arm. 'Nobody's fault your secrets consist of gross things about Evans and that you occasionally nick from Moony's choco-stash,' he said.

Prongs gasped, flushing, and let go of Padfoot. 'I would never!' Sirius crossed his arms, deadpan. Peter doubled over in a fit of giggles. 'I borrowed a candy or two! Borrowed! A Potter never nicks!'

'Whatever you say. Now shut up and let's go.'

The trap door met them with silence. Moony didn't wail or smash against the walls. The quiet made them uneasy. James stopped grumbling under his breath and helped Wormtail sneak in first as per usual. He looked around, chattered the safety word and darted to the second floor.

What he expected to see, he didn't know. It certainly wasn't a werewolf sitting on its hind legs with a huge spider on its nose. The arachnid noticed the company and jumped. Wormtail nearly shat himself from the fright. The bugger was almost as big as him! And was giving chase! Moony joined as graceful as a bull in a Knockturn Alley shop. He got only more excited when Prongs burst in. Wormtail leapt at the stag's back, checking the floor for the bleeding spider. It was nowhere to be found. Maybe, Prongs stepped on it.

They ushered Moony towards the backyard exit. Sirius waited, hidden behind the open door. Moony whined, tongue falling out, and bolted into the night. The snow distracted him from the looming forest and soon enough he was rolling in the snow. Prongs pranced around, messing the snowdrifts. Wormtail had to hold on tight with his tiny paws to keep from falling over.

The door clicked shut. Sirius jumped (Prongs grunted in worry, moving closer) and transformed mid-pounce. The two canines wrestled and nipped at each other playfully until both were covered in snow. Padfoot jumped around to evade Moony, landing low on the front feet, butt sticking in the air, tail wagging like a muggle propeller. Seeing a dog as big as an adolescent bear behave like a puppy was ridiculous. Peter chattered, unable to contain his laughter. Moony snapped the jaws at the sound, mock-pounced on Padfoot and raced off into the forest. They followed. Thus, the usual ritual 'bring Moony out for a walk' was complete.

They ran among the trees fast enough for the scenery to blur. Whenever Moony strayed too far from the course towards their meadow Padfoot whined and growled and lunged around, making the werewolf chase him. Prongs helped, dancing gracefully away from the sharp teeth and claws, beckoning him away from the path to the mountains in the far distance. Wormtail held tightly on to Prongs's antler but he wasn't afraid. He never was on Moony runs. A deep sense of belonging and camaraderie in their little group always dwarfed his fears.

Ahead, the great log lay broken on its side. They took longer than usual to reach the half-way point to the meadow with Moony determined to follow some trail deeper into the forest. Wormtail couldn't complain though. He was comfortable (as comfortable as a rat could be riding on the head of a prancing deer). He was with his friends.

Moony's snout jerked up and he froze, sniffing the air once. A deep rumble in his throat turned into a menacing snarl. The growling had little resemblance to the teasing noise of the chase games with Padfoot. It was all the warning they got before Moony shot forward faster than a spell.

They bolted after him, Padfoot whining slightly ahead. Prongs made a sniffing sound and pounded the ground with every powerful tramp. Moony ignored the calls, hurtling thought the first shrubs around their meadow. The ceiling of the tall trees unveiled the starry sky above. A full moon shone high and mighty, pasty amidst the shadows. The dark grey of Moony's fur lit with silvery streaks.

They broke into the meadow right on Moony's tail. Wormtail squeaked and hissed, his little heart nearly exploding in a sudden terror. The opposite border of their haven was an ocean of fierce faces, hooves striking soil and drawn bows among the stark snow and murky tree trunks. Familiar silver filly stood among them right next to a Centaur with a laurel wreath woven into his fair long locks. He looked important. Moony must've thought the same: he didn't slow one bit, aiming straight for the heart of the herd. The Marauders had to follow, Padfoot and Prongs and himself yowling out in a vain attempt to stop the werewolf.

There was a snap and a chilling whistle. A strange cloud blocked the moonlight, moving rapidly towards them. Arrows! A cloud of arrows! Sweet lips of Holy Circe! They were going to die!

The filly jerked and reared and the silly horse transformed into a silly witch while a werewolf meant to rip someone to pieces. At least he would escape the gory detail by dying first. Padfoot howled and all but pounced on top of Moony. The werewolf kept going. The witch raised her arms as if in surrender (yeah, right, try to fend off a raving predator with that) just as the arrows reached Moony and Padfoot and Prongs and Wormtail was on Prongs's head and-

He squeezed his little eyes.

-they were dead.

'No!' Sirius's cousin screamed.

Or not.

A noise reminiscent of heavy rain hitting a window glass made Peter peek.

Moony was rolling with Padfoot, both snapping and snarling and clawing at each other. The snow around them turned crimson.

'Hadar must keep to her faithful form,' a dark-haired Centaur next to the must-be-chief said. 'Changeling mustn't confine her spirit to a disgraceful guise.'

Sirius's cousin stuck the chin higher at his disdainful tone. Her eyes blazed in a chilling glare, albeit, directed at the shield. More arrows hit the clear barrier. 'You will stop the attack at once!' she said slowly, loudly. Every word thundered as if infused with magic. Centaurs halted. In the sudden silence, Moony and Padfoot kept wrestling. Steam rose from their bloodied furs, the snow melted in a nearly perfect ring around. Prongs circled them, brandishing the antlers like a wand. Wormtail hissed at the hoofed arseholes.

The pompous Centaur puffed out his broad hairy chest. 'Hadar is in dan-'

'Hadar is fine!'

That shut him up quick. The bugger's pouting face was hilarious. Wormtail laughed which translated to Rat as a series of chattering squeaks.

The chief Centaur stepped closer to the witch, scrutinising her with a ravenous gaze. What a creep. 'We dare not leave you with the werewolf unprotected,' he said. In contrast to his shrewd expression, his voice was melodious and calming, even serene. The Centaur lifted a hand. A sea of bowstrings was drawn with an unmistakable stretching noise. Peter would have nightmares of the sound. Prongs struck the ground with the front legs and stepped between the fighting Moony and Padfoot and the Centaurs. 'He runs unchecked, thirsting for flesh. We dare not risk your life. The beast must die.'

Sirius's cousin exhaled a long breath, not moving an inch. The air around them bloated with tension and a heavy smell of ozone. Wormtail glanced up. Was rain even possible in such cold? The dark dome of the sky was undisturbed, the moon hung high and pale.

'He is no beast but a good man cursed and you will not touch him,' the witch said and her voice carried again. 'Besides, you no longer have any reason to be on this clearing. It belongs to him and his friends.'

The chief Centaur smirked. The pompous dark-haired berk next to him sneered. 'You dare-' he tried to say.

The witch's hair (Wormtail did a double-take) began to float. What the hell? The prickly Centaur's bow and arrows rose in the air, too, rather forcefully at that. Distressed calls grew in number as the whole herd lost their weapons to what looked like a glitch in the gravity field. Not one of them managed to tug them down.

'Sirius,' the witch said distractedly, breathing deeply, not lowering her hands. Neither one held a wand. What? Padfoot barked, twisting away from Moony's sharp teeth. 'Could you draw him away, please? This conflict is senseless.' She frowned at the chief Centaur. The man-horse looked unconcerned and happy to wait without backing down.

Padfoot snapped his jaws at Moony's hind legs and leapt towards the path they came from. Moony followed, thankfully. Prongs lowered his head to the ground. Wormtail scrambled off, rising on twos to peer into James's green eyes - the only feature left unchanged in every animagus. Prongs snorted (soft breath warmed his small body), and galloped towards Moony, prodding the werewolf when he slowed the chase after Padfoot.

It seemed Peter had to play a guard. He gulped, the movement weird in the rat form, and glanced around at the brutal faces. How was he supposed to manage that?

'Very diplomatic of you,' the Centaur-chief said with a pleasant smile.

'V'ry 'nhelpf'l 'f you!' The witch sighed to slow the jumbled words. 'There is nothing left to say.' The Centaurs' bows and arrows plonked with the fall of her hands. The herd grumbled in outrage, collecting the weapons. The dark-haired git complained about 'wizarding incivility.'

'Indeed. Till we meet again, Hadar.'

Wormtail exhaled in shaky relief. The tension bled out from his libs with every Centaur darting away. Sirius's cousin watched them go for a long moment and sighed. Her hands lifted slowly, and she stared at them for a heartbeat before her head dropped neatly into her dainty palms. The picture she made was pure misery - a lone figure in flimsy robes amidst the snow and shadows. Peter transformed. A shiver whacked him at the first gust of chilly wind.

How did the girl not freeze to death yet?

'Hey, um-' he said. She started (Peter could swear her hair rose and coiled). Her frail shoulders jerked and she turned, letting her arms drop. In the tense silence, every creak and moan of the forest amplified into a sinister melody.

'So, uhh-' he said again when she failed to react. What a character, eh. 'Your friends, huh?'

The witch cringed and looked at the place where Moony and Padfoot fought. Her walk was unhurried, every movement free of shudders. Wasn't she cold? A magic blanket? He snorted at his own stupid thought. Sirius's cousin ignored him, studying the bloodied snow with an expression so heartbroken he had to speak some nonsense.

'Ever heard of a wolf who got lost in the forest?' Her mien screwed up in an incredulity. Hadn't she heard of a joke? Peter cleared his throat to throw off the flaming embarrassment. 'Friends called him a where-wolf.'

She blinked and let out a faint breathy giggle. Peter grinned at the sound and strode forward, sticking his hand out. 'I'm Peter Pettigrew. We've met before.'

'Mirach Black,' the witch said giving her palm, delicate and freezing. Peter grasped it and rubbed the cold skin.

'Circe's delicates! You're like a popsicle!'

'I'm fine,' she said, trying to tag her hand free.

'No, no. Padfoot will murder me.' Peter took off his heavy coat and draped it over her shoulders. She didn't drown in the cloth, but it was close. The girl was way too small for her age. Mirach's attention strayed. Peter followed her gaze to the bloodied clearing.

'Not t-to worry, love! They'll be o-o-okay. We're t-t-tough lads,' he said, teeth cluttering. It was bloody cold. Some weird dark spot moved quickly towards them. Peter squinted and let out a squeak. He had no time to be mortified. The bleeding spider followed him!

'Shite!' he screamed, hiding behind the witch. 'Curse the bugger! It's gonna eat me!' Fuck pride and such rubbish! Spiders were the creatures of evil-

Peter gaped when the witch bent down and stretched the arm. The spider jumped on her open palm! Perfumed Circe's nipples!

'Eeek! Woman, what are you doing?! Drop it! Drop it!'

Tinkling laughter interrupted his frantic shouts. The sound was musical and so very rare according to Padfoot. She laughed before in the Shrieking Shack when it all began. But the hysterical giggles didn't compare. Sirius should've been here to hear it. To see her with the head thrown back, silver curls lit in the moonlight and with not a care in a world.

'She is harmless, Ron,' the witch said.

She?

Who's Ron?

Who cared when the hairy bugger on her hand poised two front legs his way? Nuh-uh! Peter stumbled back in the snow, legs numb from the cold.

'H-how do you know sh-she is a… well, sh-sh-she?' he said, watching the nightmarish creature unblinkingly, shaking and jumping from foot to foot to generate some warmth. It was quite a feat, if anyone asked him. Mirach frowned and brought the palm to her shoulder. The spider scrambled under the robes. His coat! He would have to burn it!

The witch didn't lower the hand. Her fingers spread wide, gaze sharpened on him. Peter made another step away, getting nervous at the strange behaviour. 'I read.'

'Har-har.' A toasty bubble that enveloped him was sudden and so very blissful. Like walking into grandma's house after building a snowman in the garden to grab a plate of fresh pea soup and a loaf of hot bread. 'Ahhh. Thanks. That's so much better.'

Mirach hummed, watching him with a smile. She was kinda nice.

'So, wandless, huh? How'd you do that?'

'Just practice,' she said, eyes going distant. 'A lot of free time.' For a second it seemed the witch would talk more but she peered at the moon instead.

'Pretty neat, if you ask me. Wish I could do some.'

The conversation stalled. What kind of reply was that? Why, oh why could he not speak out of his arse for once.

'Shall we go look for your friends?' Peter jerked at her soft voice.

'No point. There's no way we'll find them now,' he said, shaking the head. 'We'll only get lost in the forest.'

Mirach hummed. 'Do you want to go for a ride?'

'Huh?'

'Horseback,' the witch said with a twitch of her lips.

'Not with that assassin-spider.'

She laughed again, flashing a neat row of pearly teeth. The hellish creature came out of its hiding spot behind the collar and raced down her arm. It danced agitatedly, sticking two legs in his direction rather forcefully (Mirach nodded in sympathy), jumped to the ground (Peter jumped with it and prepared to run) and all but stalked off sulking. Could a spider even sulk?

Mirach snorted and took off his coat.

'She's sentient.'

'Huh?' Good going, man.

The witch passed him the cloak. He held it like a poisonous ivy, arms outstretched, mouth skewed in a sour wince.

Mirach chuckled. 'Don't be silly. As soon as I change the warming charm will fade.'

She transformed and indeed, Peter had to hurry and put the coat on to escape the frostbite, spider or no spider.

The filly scampered around him, snorting every other step. When they first met Peter had no chance to observe her. She was a young Shire, a breed he'd ridden before. Silver chased her black colouring to the underbelly and legs. A grey spot on her head was barely noticeable, grey feathering covered the hooves, her mane curled unusually. She was beautiful.

'You're lovely,' he said, mounting. 'We gotta think of a nickname for you.'

The filly reared. Peter struggled to hold on, screaming his lungs out. She neighed and started at a gallop into the forest. He hugged her neck for dear life. The witch was insane!

'Slow down, will ya!?' She neighed again. 'What do you mean no!?'

They passed shadowed trees and snowy bushes and fallen rotting logs, their pace so quick the wind whipped at his face, yet, he could do nothing but guffaw. How exhilarating! Last time he had such a ride his gran was still alive!

They stopped on a dead-end trail from the Greenhouses and Peter dismounted. He slapped his thighs, bending to take a breather.

'Blimey! What a trip!' The filly reared and transformed. He dashed to catch the girl by the flailing limbs. 'Woah! Alright there?'

Mirach sent him a sheepish smile and ambled up the path. Peter looked around, breathing in greedily. The charged air in this place didn't bite his airways, the noise was sparse, the snow - somehow, even shinier. He followed the witch into the woods. Could be the beginning of a tale. She brought the prince to a charmed tower to have her wicked way with him. Peter snickered at the foolish fantasy. He glanced up and his heart plummeted. Mirach was gone.

What!? Padfoot would murder his arse!

'Umm, Mirach!' Her name sat weirdly on his tongue. 'Where'd she go? Mirach!'

Maybe, it wasn't the best idea to shout in the night forest but all sounds were muffled as if he screamed underwater. The air in front of him rippled like a pond surface and the witch appeared, beckoning him to step forward. He did, passing through some sort of invisible barrier, and paused to gape.

A massive gazebo sat under a magical dome that kept away the winter. Vines heavy with black roses knitted the trellis walls; a marble fountain in a from of chalice burbled gently amidst lush grass swaying in a phantom breeze leading to the steps. The gazebo was marble with plants and blooms painstakingly carved into every possible surface. Sense of safety and secret permeated the area. A faint rotting sweetness of it added to the mystery. Peter was struck dumb from the beauty of it all.

'Arachne brought me here once,' Mirach said, climbing the stairs and taking a seat on the long circular bench.

Peter followed in daze, taking off his winter cloak and the sweater underneath. Inside, the gazebo could easily fit two dozen people standing. 'Who?'

'Your favourite spider.'

'You named your spider Arachne?' What, like in the myth?

Mirach shook the head. The movement was bizarrely slow but it suited her. 'She is not mine.'

'Right. She was awfully cosy with you.'

The witch shrugged. 'The barrier we crossed is partly a powerful notice-me-not enchantment. I have read of those. Susceptible minds would forget the area as soon as they lose sight of it. Some would even feel repelled coming near.'

'Huh, I think I forget it every time I blink.'

Mirach didn't laugh and Peter turned away from the intricate carvings on the ceiling, the trellis walls and the floor. She watched him with a small frown.

'You give yourself too little credit,' she said. Peter had to look at his feet to escape her intense stare. Mirach had eyes of a mindreader. He didn't want the witch to see the ridiculous happiness random praise induced in him.

'I wish I could forget this place,' she said. Peter peeked through his fallen bangs. Mirach gazed at the roses with a blank face. 'I don't like it very much. I feel a vile taint in the magic.'

He didn't sense anything. 'Why'd you bring me here, then?'

'You were cold.'

Peter snorted and sat next to her. He didn't have much to add to that. 'Thanks.'

She hummed distractedly, mind clearly floating elsewhere. Peter yawned. The force of it nearly dislocated his jaw. He needed a distraction or he'd fall right asleep.

'Say, ever heard a story of a knight Roland?'

'Did he get lost in the woods?'

A violent snort was wrenched from his throat before he even realised, scraping painfully inside his nose. Peter rubbed it hastily. At least, no snot came out. He would've died in mortification.

'No,' he said ignoring Mirach's cheeky grin. 'He was in service of a wise and old King who just so happened to be his father.'

'So he was a prince.'

'Don't interrupt. But yeah, he was a prince from the King's first marriage. A first-born son who carried a burden of protecting the family name. He took the mantle of a King's guard at a young age.'

'How young?'

'Just. Young. Like eight.'

'Could he even lift a sword?'

'Yes, he could. He was strong. And stop interrupting. Ahem. The King took two wives after Roland's mother. The first was an evil woman who hated the knight and incited many an argument between the King and the prince.'

'Wha' happ'ned to R'land's m'ther?'

'She was sick.'

'Sick.'

'Uh-huh. Don't interrupt. The stepmother had a son from her own marriage and he despised Roland secretly even as he befriended him. The two of them sought the means to control the prince, to turn him against his father and claim the throne amidst the anarchy such conflict would've brought. The King saw through the deceit and divorced the evil Queen before she gave birth to their first joint child.'

'H'w'd he f'nd 't?'

'Find out?'

'Hmm.'

'The Queen made a grave mistake - she forgot about other figures on the board. You see, Roland had three friends - fellow knights, brave and most loyal and ever-present in his life. One of them was his childhood friend but eventually, they drifted apart as the knight got closer to another boy from the group. Roland didn't begrudge him companionship. He was happy to belong. He carried hope in his heart to finally attain the family he longed for as well. He reckoned, maybe, the third wife would be docile and sweet in her young age and carry nothing but love in her heart for both the King and Roland-'

Feathery softness touched his cheek followed by a light weight. Peter jerked slightly, having forgotten about his companion. Mirach slept, head pillowed on his shoulder, downy curls sticking in his eye and nose. Peter let her, watching the carved ceiling of the gazebo with not a thought on his mind. Who cared about struggles long past?

He started awake as someone violently convulsed next to him with a grunt. The sky was still dark, the white marble produced the same amount of low light. Mirach struggled to get up, limps and trunk twitching every other heartbeat. She finally stood and swayed after a small uncoordinated step. Peter bolted from his seat, grasping her forearms. Constant tremors run through them like electric currents.

'How can I help?' he said.

Mirach shook her head, the movement spasmodic, and tried to tag her hands free.

'No, no, listen, my gran had difficulty walking. I can help.' She met his eyes and hers were filled with tears. Fuck! What'd he do with that? 'Oh no, love! Don't cry! What shall I do!?'

'I will… transform and… it will… get better,' she said. 'But… once we… reach the castle… The Matron… Could you-?'

'Take you to Madam Pomfrey? Sure thing!'

She changed. Her form was as lovely as before, movements - fluid grace. They left the gazebo after he hastily put his discarded sweater and cloak. The filly neighed. Peter mounted and off they flew, further and further away from the dead-end trail. Why were they there in the first place?

The Greenhouses rushed by. The stillness of the snow was undisturbed except for the path they made. The castle entrance was in sight before Peter could begin to worry about anyone noticing them in the dead of the night. Their trek to the Hospital Wing was slow and he struggled against the urge to break the silence. Mirach had no qualms about keeping quiet.

The Matron awaited them, hands on her waist. Peter swallowed as all spit suddenly dried in his mouth.

'Miss Black, I cannot believe my eyes. Late, late,' Pomfrey whispered, ushering them inside. 'Oh, my dear, come, come.' She didn't spare him a glance, fluttering around Mirach like a mother hen, bringing potions to her lips. They smelled of cherries and chamomile and some ripe citrus and honey. 'Off you go now, boy, and I'll pretend I didn't see you.'

Peter exhaled, the tension leaking out of his head. A soft dainty palm grasped his hand lightly. He looked up. Blue eyes glowed in the dim light of the lantern like deep ocean waters in the sun. 'Thank you, Peter,' she said with a gentle beam. The back of his neck itched, so he scratched it, suppressing a grin. He understood finally what Prongs meant about her smiles.

'Don't mention it.'

He returned to the Gryffindor tower, halting every other corridor turn and stair-flight to yawn. The clock in the Hospital Wing read nearly six in the morning and even Filch had to sleep sometimes. And Peter was so damn tired he didn't care about anything but hot shower and bed.

As he expected neither James nor Sirius returned yet. They would bring Moony to Pomfrey first. Maybe, he missed them by minutes. No matter.

The water warmed his bones, the soft mattress (once he dumped Prongs's rags on the floor) took him into its sweet embrace. He blinked and it was time to get up. The wand-alarm vibrated like a bloody May bug under his pillow. Peter dressed up, shoving the stupid hat into the bag (how he hated that thing!) and stumbled to the Great Hall. He had just a few minutes to grab a toast and some coffee before Transfiguration. Hopefully, James and Sirius were waiting for him. He so wanted to know how the Moony-run went after they separated.

Peter tripped at the door to the Great Hall for a bleeding hundredth time. The sparse chatter at the table died out as he neared. Peter stopped and broke eye contact with the floor. Everyone was staring at him. James stood up, ashen and concerned. Sirius wasn't in the Hall. McKinnon stalked towards him with an unreadable expression.

What'd he do this time?

As soon as the thought formed, he had arms full of Marlene. 'Oh, Peter,' she said. 'Peter.' He floundered, hugging back on automat, peeking at the table for some food. He was bloody hungry.

The Prophet's front page caught his attention. Numbness spread to every part of his body and his hands fell. Peter snatched the paper, feeling how the blood drained from his head to pump the heart that was suddenly trying to break out of his ribcage. Someone screamed his name but he could not focus on anything but the picture on the front page. His father smiled up at him. The title read 'Joseph William Pettigrew Murdered in Cold Blood Last Night'.

An image of their cottage sprang in his imagination, white and lovely, with the reading tower and beautiful back-garden. It crumbled like a house of cards.