"It fucking works, Prongs, I'm telling you!"
"It's hippogriff shite, mate—growling and grunting doesn't constitute conversation, unless you're Mulciber, the bloody Neanderthal."
Sirius snickered, then peeked around the enormous pumpkin they hid behind before turning back to James. "I swear to God it works; I asked on a lark, and Fang turned right round and led me straight to the river! He understood me!"
"Or, y'know, he was thirsty as well—probably hoping to lose the gibbering mutt on the way."
"Shut up, both of you," Remus said, rubbing at the shadows under his eyes. "You dragged us out of bed to settle this very argument, Sirius, so get on with it already. I'm exhausted."
"Be quick about it!" Peter added as Sirius's form blurred and shifted into Padfoot. Peter knew he was up to take the fall if a distraction became necessary for the rest to avoid detention—in reality, it was Sirius's turn, but James hadn't bothered to correct him.
Sirius let out a long, soft howl, then let it fade into silence, and they strained their ears; after a few more seconds of uncertainty, the expected scraping sounded from the other side of Hagrid's door.
"Got him," James breathed, poking his head over the pumpkin. "Go on, then," he coaxed of Hagrid. "Let him out, already."
There was a massive creaking of wood that must've been the man's straining bedframe, then a few whumps of footsteps getting closer until the door swung open—James ducked down quickly as Fang scampered out, and the door rattled shut again.
The hound padded around their pumpkin and greeted Sirius with an excitable bark. Alarm shot through James, and a chorus of urgent shushing followed like snakes in a library. The boys led the dog away from the garden and past the fringe of trees into the fold of the Forbidden Forest.
"I almost died back there," Peter said.
Sirius had shifted back; he squinted over from where he knelt, patting Fang's head. "You've my mother's knack for melodrama. It's rather annoying."
"My mother'll kill me if she gets another letter from McGonagall when I rack up more detentions—I've had sixteen of them already this year!"
Remus snapped his fingers impatiently. "Come on, I'm not freezing my arse off in the dead of night to hear about your mother issues, either of you. Talk to Fang so I can bloody sleep."
James snapped bossily at Sirius in imitation. "You heard the man, now hurry it along; Remus needs more beauty rest, clearly. Perhaps tonight's the night it finally yields results."
Sirius let out a bark of laughter that made Fang cock his head, then he bent on all fours and transformed again, and the dogs faced each other muzzle to muzzle.
The other three looked on, bewildered, while Padfoot grunted and snuffled earnestly, the occasional soft yip thrown in. The hound sat still with his head cocked, soaking in the stream of what James suspected was, to Fang, little more than annoying noise. The dog sat slack-jawed and drooling like Sirius after a bender.
Padfoot paused, and Fang stared. A long string of saliva succumbed to gravity with aching slowness, and it was just as interesting as what they were witnessing.
Finally, Fang grumbled back, and Sirius perked up, responding immediately, and at last there was a mutual exchange of gibberish.
"This is ridiculous," Remus said. "They're not really talking, are they? It's just Fang responding to nonsense."
"I'm going in," James said. "If I don't return as the James you knew, strike me down with mercy."
James caught Remus muttering something about change and improvement as he transfigured into a stag, only slightly less majestic than his human shape. He trotted over to stand nearer the dogs, hovering over their interplay like a referee.
Sirius huffed and grunted, and, as normal, James could interpret the gist of it: Nice of you to join us.
Fang had edged back, staring straight at James like he was the deer out of his element. Together with Sirius, James made soothing noises to settle the hound, attempting to convey calm friendliness, but his soft bleating unnerved the dog further. Fang scooted back, whuffing out low, halting barks.
Another, scarier sound caught James's ear: crunching leaves, snapping twigs, and the cause of both; the dull thumping of huge footfalls.
Fang kept barking, and Sirius snapped one of his own, imparting something along the lines of pipe down, you dolt, it's James!
"Fang? Who's that yeh've got with you?"
Fang barked happily and bounded for Hagrid as the gamekeeper lumbered into view, lantern in hand lit against the gloom; it illuminated Hagrid's baffled expression on finding Remus alone in the forest beside a dog and a stag. They stood frozen as Hagrid closed the distance with the dubious expression of one suspecting a prank.
"Mr. Lupin," he said. "Out for an evening stroll, are yeh?"
"I . . . I was looking for . . ." Remus floundered, glancing back at James and Sirius. ". . . meat," he finished.
James brayed incredulously. That was his best explanation?
Hagrid looked at Remus with the oddness he deserved. "Righ'," he said at last. "Yer not much of a liar, Remus. Nuthin' ter be ashamed of. Now," he said, expression morphing to something more shrewd. "Where's the rest of 'em?"
"The rest of whom?" Remus said, sounding about as innocent as he wasn't.
"Yer lot o' hooligans, o' course," Hagrid said, staving off Fang's slobbery affections. "'Preciate you coverin' fer yer friends, but the game's up. Come on out," he said to the forest at large, "an' I'll let yeh off the hook this once. Don' make me come lookin'."
Hagrid wouldn't find them, of course. His offer was genuine, but James wanted to get to the bottom of this animal speech business, and a glance told him Sirius agreed. Remus's turn had come early, it seemed, luckily for—
Peter, no! Idiot! James tried to whisper, but it came out as low, throaty bleating. Hagrid peered at James and Sirius curiously, while behind him, Wormtail had grown into Peter and was about to cock things up in typical fashion.
"Hagrid—" Peter yelped as the gamekeeper whirled around in a blur of bulk; James fancied he felt a breeze pass over him as Hagrid laid eyes on Peter.
"Blimey! What're yeh doin', sneakin' up on me like tha'?"
"Sorry Hagrid, I just—It's—I'm the one who, er—I lured Remus here?" His inflection made it a question, and James shook his head in wonderment, sharing with Sirius a commiserating look. He was worse than Remus, somehow.
"Yeh lured Remus here," Hagrid repeated flatly.
"As a prank," Peter clarified quickly. "Not anything, er, weird."
Hagrid snorted. "No harm meant, Peter, but yeh're the last person I'd expect ter find in the forest by their own free will. I know them two troublemakers're here too; s'all that makes sense. What don' make sense," he added, "is why them animals haven't run off scared. What've you lot done to 'em?"
"Nothing, they're fine," Remus said quickly. "I'm sure they'll be off any second now," he added with a pointed glare back at them.
James and Sirius exchanged a look, and in a moment they understood each other perfectly; it was much too fun watching the other two fail utterly at lying to Hagrid. They turned to give Remus twin stares of unrepentant amusement.
Remus huffed an irritated breath and turned back to Hagrid, who looked on with sneaking suspicion. "Look, Peter and I were only searching for, er, moonmoths. It's for a potion we want to try—harmless stuff."
"Moonmoths, eh?" Hagrid said dryly. "Yeh havin' trouble wit' cramps in yer lady parts?"
Remus wheezed a little. "Ah, uh, no, I only—that is, I don't have any 'lady parts', of course, it's just—"
Beside James, Sirius shook his shaggy head and let out a few whuffs: This is disgraceful; got to put a stop to it. Before James could register what Sirius intended, he'd padded up beside Remus and shifted back to human before Hagrid's bulging eyes, appearing with a grandiose sweep of his arms.
"I'm in love with them, Hagrid," Sirius declared. "I invited them here, under the shadow of the new moon, to fight to the death for claim to my heart."
The rest of them gaped, gobsmacked. Hagrid spoke at length: "Sirius Black! Tell me I didn' jus' see wha' I saw!" he said, disregarding Sirius's pronouncement entirely. "Tha's never an animagus shape?"
Sirius only then lowered his arms from the dramatic pose he'd struck. "Oh, that? Yeah, it was."
"What the hell?" Remus blurted.
"You should be thanking me, mate," Sirius told him. "You two con artists were embarrassing yourselves and us. I thought you'd learned better than that," he said, shaking his head like a disappointed father.
"As if he'd believe what you said!" Remus fired back. "Love, indeed!"
"If it were James, he might've," Peter remarked.
"I was joking, quite obviously. I don't want to lie to Hagrid—he's a good bloke, and he promised to let us off this once, right?"
Hagrid shook his head slowly as he made sense of it all. "So tha' . . . that'll be James, then?" He nodded at James' stag shape.
James trotted up beside Sirius and reverted to normal, grinning up at Hagrid. "Got it in one."
"Don' believe it . . . animagi, the lot o' yeh," Hagrid muttered faintly. "A deer and a dog—and you?" he asked, looking at Peter.
"A rat," Peter admitted.
Hagrid turned to Remus expectantly, and James cut in. "Remus is a tad embarrassed of his shape, so I'll respect his privacy by not telling you his true self is reflected by an adorable bunny rabbit."
Remus huffed and crossed his arms, though James could see a little smile at the corner of his mouth.
From where he stood between them, Sirius threw an arm each over James and Remus's shoulders. "So, Hagrid, what's the verdict? Don't keep us in suspense."
Hagrid stared around at them, then uttered a disbelieving little laugh and beckoned, turning away to lead them from the forest. The four of them fell into step in a row beside him, three strides for every one of his.
"I'll hold ter me word," Hagrid said as they went, Fang gallivanting ahead of them. "Yeh've gone and done the most dangerous thing yeh could possibly think of. Nuthin' ter be done about it now. I wouldn' mind knowin' what you lot were up to tonight, though."
"Sirius thinks he can talk to animals in dog shape," James said. "We were testing that theory on Fang. Results were inconclusive."
"On the contrary," Sirius said, "we had a nice rapport going for a while, there."
"Always nice to parlay with one's intellectual peers," Remus interjected mildly.
"Good one, Flopsy."
"But did he speak to you?" James pressed.
"That, sir, is irrelevant."
"So he didn't," Remus confirmed. "Excellent. James was right, now the two of you can drop it forever."
"Yeh can speak ter animals?" Hagrid perked up, looking them over with intrigue. "They understand yeh?"
The four of them exchanged glances as it dawned on them what this information could mean to Hagrid, a man who cared for his thestrals, his dog, his forest more than anything else. The edge of the treeline came into view between the evergreens, and beyond it, Hogwarts, its windows aglow with warm firelight like tiny suns in the dusk.
"We could teach you," Peter said suddenly.
The other three gave him surprised looks, and Remus spoke next, sounding astonished at his own words. "Actually, I think we could."
James and Sirius grinned at each other; with Remus's sign-off, it was a done deal. "It's settled!" Sirius announced. "Hagrid, by this time next year, you'll be frolicking with the unicorns!"
"As for becoming an animagus, it may take a bit longer than that," James added. "But we'll get you there eventually."
"Mighty kind of yeh, really—mighty kind. Bu' I'm not much of a wizard, yeh know. Doubt if I could so much as grow more hair 'n usual. Don' even have a wand," Hagrid finished glumly.
"Bollocks to all that," James said. "With our help, you could become the bloody Minister of Magic, much less an animagus. We'll get you there, Hagrid," James promised.
"And you do have a wand, hidden in your umbrella," Remus said with lightly chiding amusement. "We've seen you using it."
Hagrid looked away, abashed, while they five emerged from the Forbidden Forest at last and made for the hut. They stopped at the front door, and Hagrid turned back to them, looking down at each with a sort of exasperated fondness.
"I'll think abou' it," he said. "Now get gone, before yeh have us all caught out."
The four gave Hagrid and Fang their farewells and began the trek back to the castle. Wormtail skittered ahead through the lush grass, leaving the others to barely fit under James's invisibility cloak.
"You really think he can do it?" Sirius asked of James. "What if his giant blood mucks things up?"
"Well, you fared alright, didn't you? I'd say half-bloods are perfectly able."
"Right," Sirius drawled. "So what am I? Part goblin? Garden gnome?"
"For starters," James said. "I'm detecting a whiff of troll from here, too. Your family's quite open-minded."