When Claire exited the secret passageway from Hogwarts in the cellar of the shrieking shack, she heard a strange noise from the room above, but didn't pay attention. Now, with all the planing done, she could only wait and hope that Snape and Remus would succeed. But what then? How could she make Sirius understand, that she'd said those awful things just to save him, not to hurt him?
She feared that Severus was right and Sirius would never trust her again.
Deep in thought she climbed the wooden stairs to floor level - only to find herself eye to eye with Ben Olsen. Malfoy's counsellor stood, arms crossed, by the door of the shack, obviously waiting for her.
"Olsen." Claire swallowed. How did he know about the passageway?
"You must not forget I was a student there myself," he remarked, and with a growing unease she remembered that he could read minds.
"We really need to talk." He offered her the only chair with a derisive grin.
Claire remained standing , as far away from him as she could get in the small room, though distance would probably not prevent him from reading her.
"I know about your nasty little secret." Olsen arched his fair eyebrows.
"I have no idea what you are talking about."
He scoffed at her blank face. "Don't even try to pretend! You are a squib, and there is no way around that. Don't make me force you to admit it." He drew his wand and pointed it right at her head.
"I could let your nose grow, and you'd have no power to undo such a simple spell."
She clenched her fists behind her back. What should she do now? Her mind raced. How could she lie to him when he could read every one of her thoughts?
"I was suspicious from the first minute I saw you with that fool Malfoy at Gringotts." He patted the chair. "Do sit down. If it is any consolation for you, Lucius does not know."
"How did you find out?" she asked, still refusing to sit. "I know you overheard my conversation with my husband in the interrogation cell. But how could you know at Gringott's?"
At least she wanted him to admit he'd read her mind.
"You must know I have a special, quite useful talent," began Olsen. "I can read minds, as long as they are not protected by mental barriers. With wizards or Muggles I never have problems, although most skilled wizards shield their mind habitually. But there is still a ...", he searched for the word, "a background noise. If I can't read the specific thought, I can at least tell whether they are happy or angry, whether they are honest or keeping a secret." His mouth twitched in annoyance. "Now guess my surprise when I felt nothing with you. Nothing at all. Silence."
Claire's eyes widened. So all he knew was what he'd heard her say in the Ministry? Desperately she tried to remember what she'd said exactly.
"So you must be a squib or a witch on the level of our common friend Dumbledore," the wizard concluded.
"I doubt that Albus would call you a friend," Claire could not refrain.
"No, he probably would not." Olsen smiled. "But you are on friendly terms with him. Albus, eh? And you are friends with the staff."
"Maybe." She started to pace the room. "But what's it to you? I am a squib. There, I admit it. Now you are going to tell Malfoy and your Lord and Master. I know what they do with squibs."
He gave her a strange smile. "First I need to know why you joined the Death Eaters, if you knew about Voldemort's ... prejudice ... concerning squibs."
Her eyes flamed. "Isn't that obvious? The only way to survive once You-know- how takes over, is to have made myself indispensable. If you can't defeat them - join the. That's what my late father always said." Claire raised her hands. "The Winterstorm bloodline is amongst the oldest in wizarding Britain. Squibism is not a hereditary disease. My parents have consulted every medi-wizard who ever did research in that field. They all say I'll have perfectly normal children. If anybody should support Voldemort' s cause, it is I!"
Ben Olsen scrutinised her face, but seemed content with what he saw. "Pity Dumbledore framed you."
"He told me, White was strong enough to protect me. But not a word about him being Sirius Black! At least Black is from a very old family. Cousin Valerius traced his family tree for me - Black's family tree, not the one Dumbledore made up for 'Professor White'. The baby will be as pure-blooded as can be."
"Your secret is save with me. But of course not without some compensation from your side." Pulling a sealed parchment scroll from his sleeve, he stepped closer, and Claire had to put all her courage together to not recoil when he pressed the parchment in her hand. "I help you and you help me."
"What do you want?"
"This is a letter for a friend of yours. In the next weeks I'll want to contact Serene Kennedy once in a while. You'll understand that I can hardly just walk into Hogwarts and call on her. So I need a messenger, somebody who will transport letters and answers. Somebody who has no interest to report to Dumbledore ..."
Keeping her eyes cast on the parchment, she nodded. "But how can I be sure you won't tell Malfoy? He'd deliver me to his Lord faster than you can say squib."
"Malfoy is a fool!" Olsen all but spit when he said the name. "One of these days Voldemort will dispose of him. I'll need allies then, important allies, to take his place as third in command."
"And I shall be such an ally?" Claire asked.
"You'll be my ally," he confirmed. "And therefore I'll let you live now and let you live when we take Hogwarts."
* * *
It started to rain when the boat set Severus and Remus over to the isle of Azkaban. The fortress could not be reached by Apparating nor broom - Apparating was prevented by mostly the same warding spells that protected Hogwarts, and taking the broom was not advisable because of the strong northern gales.
The two wizards had been asked to hand over their wands before they boarded the small nutshell of a rowboat. Now, after half an hour in the wild sea, Severus looked green and as if he needed a seasickness-potion.
"There is a spell to calm the waves," he muttered under his breath and closed his eyes annoyed when another wave soaked them. "I really should fresh up my wandless magic." The troll who rowed the boat kept pulling the oars, unimpressed by the Potions Master's face. And Remus Lupin kneeled at the stern, keeping his face to the wind, breathing in the icy air.
When they finally reached the boarding dock at the island and stumbled onto dry land, Remus looked longingly out on the sea.
"Are you sure you want to do this, Lupin?" asked Snape.
"Yes. It is only … I hate it to be caged." Remus shrugged and exhaled with a sigh. "But it has to be done, so I'll do it."
A grave looking Auror expected them at the door.
"Professors," he greeted them and checked their visiting permit. "One hour to interrogate your former colleague." He shook his head in disappointment. "What a shame! Now we got them Death Eaters in our schools as well … I'll take you up there. Won't do to send one of the Dementors with you." Laughing heartily about his own joke, he led them into the fortress.
Snape made sure his sleeve covered all of his left arm, while they followed the janitor up a maze of stairs and corridors. It was a terrifying experience. From behind doors they could hear faint moans, and once or twice a cold draft met them from an adjoining corridor, though the Dementors did not get near them. Remus kept his fists clenched and his eyes to the floor, and even Severus showed some nerves by raking through his hair every time they felt the coldness.
Finally they stopped in front of a fortified door that was secured by several locks.
"Certainly all these precautions are not necessary?" asked Snape and studied the locks doubtfully, with a quick side glance at Lupin.
"Not really, no," admitted the janitor. "Even if we left them doors open, there is still the walls to climb, and then there's the sea. But the Ministry demand locks, and locks is what they get." He started to open them one by one with a set of old-fashioned iron keys. "We search the cells for wands once in a while. You never know. Aren't many visitors around to smuggle them in, but nevertheless …" His glance told them in no uncertain terms that they'd better not be the visitors who smuggled a wand into a prisoner's cell.
"Here you go. Got one hour with him. Though he won't be good company by the look of him.
He pushed open the door and locked it again as soon as the Professors had entered. Putting a warding spell onto the door to keep the Dementors off for the next hour, he went down to his office at the landing dock again.
The cell was dim and cold as an ice chamber. The chill of the northern wind seemed to seep in through the stone walls, and when Severus spoke up, his breath showed as a white cloud. Lupin looked around speculatively. There was not much to see - a board, clamped to the wall, that seemed to serve as a bed, a gutter in one corner, and a stool with a bowl and a stoneware jug next to the door. By the wall under the small high window cowered a man, hugging his legs, his head resting on his knees.
"Siri?" Remus' voice was soft, careful as if he was afraid to scare his friend.
Sirius did not react. His hair had grown to a shaggy mat, and in the month since his attack he had obviously not seen a razor. The robe he wore was the same Snape had teased him about the day of the Death Eater meeting. By now the once black and white striped material had turned into a dull grey, and where the left sleeve had been torn by Voldemort, Sirius' skin showed the same colour.
"Black." Snape went down on one knee, and touched Sirius' shoulder. The prisoner flinched and looked up. His eyes were red-rimmed, his lips encrusted with blood.
"Go away," he murmured wearily. "If I wanted hallucinations, I'd pick somebody else."
The Potions master scoffed. "I bet. Sorry to disappoint you, but I am real."
Sirius stared right through him, not hearing his words. He had started to mutter intelligible words.
Snape looked at Remus worriedly. "He is in worse shape than I thought."
"Siri, can you hear me?" Lupin hunched on his heels and took Sirius' face with both hands. "It is important. Concentrate!"
"You must listen to me. We came to get you out of the dreadful place, but you must help us."
He looked at Snape and shook his head. "I don't know what …"
"Go away." Sirius' voice was rusty as if he'd spent a lot of time screaming from the top of his lungs. "Moony, you're a fool. What are you doing here?"
"We came to get you out." Snape looked nervously at the door. They had a number of preparations to go through yet, and if Black didn't get reasonable soon, their time would be up before they were done. "You are not exactly helpful here, Black."
"Fuck off, Snape," spit Sirius and closed his eyes tiredly, letting his head sink back against the wall. "I did not ask you to come. I did not ask anybody to save me."
"Don't get all heroically on me, Black." Snape pulled a small flask from his sleeve. "Drink this and let's get out of here."
"What's he talking about?" Sirius turned to Remus, who still hunched next to him.
"It is Polyjuice," explained Remus calmly. "You'll turn into me and leave the island with Severus."
Sirius laughed, a terrible wheezing laughter, that ended in a painful cough. "Sure, and let you stay here in my place." His eyes filled with tears, and he was too exhausted to fight them. "So you believe I am not strong enough as well."
"Not strong enough?" Remus sighed. He understood Claire's motivation in hurting Sirius the way she'd done. But maybe she'd damaged more than could be mended … Anyway, first they had to save Sirius' life and later they'd care about his soul.
Snape agreed with him. "Cut it out, Black!" he snapped. "We get you back to Hogwarts and give you the opportunity to discuss that matter with your wife. Now be a good doggie and drink the potion."
The prisoner did not even look at him.
Remus rose and scratched his head. With all the planing none of them had anticipated that Sirius would refuse to get rescued. While he stood there, thinking about a way to make his friend understand that they did not have time to wait any longer, Snape drew his wand from his sleeve.
"Hey! Didn't you hand it over at the mainland dock?" Remus frowned. Of course Severus Snape was always one step ahead of the Aurors.
"You don't really think I'd enter this hellhole unarmed?" Snape sneered and glared at the bare walls and the tiny window. "If only to kill myself before the Dementors take me."
He gave Remus a strange glance. "I want you to understand that I only do this as a last resort. But you know as well as I that he won't come with us without force. If we stall any longer, the janitor will return, and then Black is truly lost."
Remus nodded, still frowning. "What do you mean? What are you going to do?"
"This." Snape aimed at Sirius and said: "Imperio!"
Sirius' head shot up. He tried to fight the curse, but was no match for the brutal force of the Unforgivable Curse.
"If the Ministry ever find out about this, you bought yourself a ticket to Azkaban, redeemed Death Eater or not." Remus bowed his head in respect. "You are taking a terrible risk for a wizard you claim to hate, Potions master."
Snape scowled and pressed the flask into Sirius' limp hand. "I don't do this because of him." He shrugged awkwardly. "Well, maybe a bit. But first of all I do this to spite Voldemort. I do it out of respect for Dumbledore. And to prevent that Claire's child grows up without a father."
At that Sirius made a violent effort and jerked his head, but then he gave in again and drank from the flask as ordered. Remus and Severus watched the effects of the Polyjuice potion, the werewolf with fascination, the Potions master with satisfaction. Within seconds the haggard prisoner with his shaggy beard and hair changed into a spitting image of Remus Lupin.
"I am afraid you'll have to change clothes with him."
Snape ordered Sirius to strip, and while Remus put on the grimy grey robe, Sirius shrugged into the clothes of his friend and obediently buttoned it up as he was told.
"Now to the most important point of this endeavour." Snape put the wand on his flat palm and murmured something unintelligible. The wand started to move, reliable like a dial, until it pointed north.
"Not good," sighed Remus, comparing the outlay of the cell, the position of the window and the direction of the wand. "I am not sure about the angle."
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Snape asked again and put the wand away. Remus nodded calmly. The Potions master gave him a small mirror. "You'll have to try to catch the moon with the mirror." He looked at the steel-enforced door doubtfully. "Will you be able to break the door?"
Remus snorted. "No door will hold me in once I transform. It's been years since I've done it without Wolfsbane, but I remember well." He put a hand on Sirius' arm, although it was quite disturbing to look into his own face. "I remember how violent I was."
"Good." Snape put another small bottle onto the wooden bed. "Drink this as soon as we are gone. It'll put you to sleep for exactly 30 hours, so you'll wake up tomorrow evening. While you sleep the Dementors won't bother you."
"And once I am a werewolf, they won't either." Remus smirked. "It has its advantages to be completely out of your mind."
"Let's hope you are still reasonable enough to get out of here." Snape had agreed with the plan mostly because he could not offer anything better, but now, after seeing the fortress and the wild sea between the isle and the mainland, he had a dull ache in his stomach. "Are you sure you can swim all the way to the coast and make it to Hogwarts?"
"As long as the moon is in the sky, there is almost no limit to my physical endurance," assured Remus. "As soon as I am on dry land, I'll rest for a while and run home the night after." He raked his fingers through the greying hair. "The only problem is .."
Snape raised an eyebrow. "Yes?"
"I might forget where home is." Lupin sighed. „When I am a wolf the human part of my mind is asleep. The scent of a rabbit, the night wind, the moon … all this is more alluring than some castle full of humans."
"Maybe," Snape gave him a side glance, "maybe the wolf can remember to get home to a certain red-haired witch."
Remus groaned. "You really hit where it hurts, Snape. Now take my twin and get him out of here before the effect of the Polyjuice wanes. Don't forget to pick up my wand when you check out." He smirked. "How did you trick the Auror? I saw the piece you handed over, it was a real functioning wand."
"Olivander gave me a replacement for Black's," explained Snape. "Said that in the long history of Olivander's Black was the first wizard who'd ever got three wands from them. Maybe next time he'll get a discount. Anyway, I gave the Auror Black's new wand and kept mine, just in case."
He got serious. Offering Remus his hand, he checked a last time that the mirror and the sleeping potion were in Remus' possession. "Good luck, Lupin."
Remus shook his hand and then, following a sudden impulse, hugged him. "Good luck to you too. Bring him home safely."
* * *
"He is doing WHAT?"
Serene starred at Dumbledore with such horror in her eyes, the old wizard patted her hand consolingly. It was their weekly counselling hour, the sessions he'd offered Serene after she'd come clear about her visions some months ago. He knew he'd not heard the whole story yet, only bits and pieces. But he had to admit to himself he took great pleasure in just sitting with the young witch and discussing whatever came to her mind. There were certain subjects she'd avoid - like Remus Lupin. So he'd only casually remarked that she needn't be worried and that Lupin would be back in no time.
But apparently she hadn't known about the whole endeavour and was now completely flabbergasted.
"Dear girl, it will be alright. He'll transform tomorrow night, break the doors and swim back to the mainland."
Her eyes were huge, her face pale as death.
"A werewolf can do it. He's about the only creature who can break out of Azkaban by sheer physical force, without any magic," Dumbledore continued, worrying silently whether he should send for Madam Pomfrey.
Serene rose slowly and withdrew her hand from his gentle grasp.
"He did not tell me," she whispered. "He did not tell me he might die."
* * *
Snape's nerves were tight as steel ropes and he seriously considered using the Full Body Bind spell on Black and deliver him to Claire's doorstep, trussed up like a turkey. The wizard who was so exhausted he could barely climb the steps to his chambers alone, kneeled on the floor and stuffed clothes and books in a trunk, insisting he'd leave. But not to return to his wife, oh no, Snape thought annoyed by so much stubbornness. To run away. He had tried to talk to Sirius, but in the end he'd resorted to getting Laurel and hoping she'd get through to him.
Laurel, in her calm way, had made Sirius drink a cup of tea to delay his packing frenzy.
"Sirius, there is no need to leave right now. You are tired, you need to take a bath and sleep for a week. And you need to eat, you look terrible."
Sirius shook his head weakly. "I am alright. I just want to get away. Please don't pester me, Laurel. I need to get out of here."
The Potions master noticed the Dark Mark on Sirius' arm. He made a mental note to prepare a batch of the numbing potion for Black, so Voldemort would not be able to call him. Somehow he didn't like the idea of the Dark Lord summoning Black, after he and Lupin had risked their lives to free him.
"Before you take the easy way out, we got some messages for you." Snape crossed his arms over his chest and scoffed.
"Potter wants you to know you are a ... what was it again?" He pretended to think. "Ah, a stupid idiot for not noticing the golden snitch when it is humming right in front of your nose."
Laurel suppressed a smile at the boy's intuitive understanding of the situation.
"And Claire wants you to know she is calling in your debt."
Sirius just starred at them both.
"My ... debt."
"Obviously you lost a bet or something and granted her a wish."
"I remember." His voice was faint.
"She demands you come home."
"She demands this night." Laurel shrugged. "That's what she said."
"Have you left not only your sanity in Azkaban, but also your honour?" Snape's eyebrows rose tauntingly.
Sirius paled under the shaggy beard. His red-rimmed eyes flashed with anger. "You have no idea what you are talking about," he said, his voice still rusty from not using it for such a long time.
Snape shrugged. "Probably not. All I know is that you've been running most of your life. Maybe it is time to stop now, and mend the damage that's been done."
Dumbledore had entered without anybody noticing him. Now he cleared his throat. When they turned, he smiled at Sirius. "Welcome back, my boy."
Sirius looked into the fair blue eyes and felt like the five year old boy again, certain the old wizard could see right through him, into the very core of his soul.
"Do me the kindness and give this to your wife when you see her." The Headmaster handed him a letter and a small parcel and patted him on the shoulder, as if he'd just returned from a weekend in London and not a month in the worst prison in the wizarding world.
One more cheery smile, and he left.
Sirius stared at the parchment, and nodded to himself. He'd go and see Claire. He'd deliver the damn letter, he'd do whatever she demanded from him - but only for this one night. Then he'd leave. He'd explain to Harry later. And the baby … He grit his teeth. He'd find a way to see his child now and then.
Laurel and Severus let him leave without a word. Laurel shook her head worriedly. In her opinion he was not in the disposition to walk to Hogsmeade all alone. Gratefully she saw Severus follow him.
When Sirius turned, the Potions master's fist smashed right into his face, splitting his lip. He tumbled back against the door of the entrance hall. For the first time since they had freed him, Sirius' face showed any emotion, not so much pain as confusion.
"What was that for?"
"You mean besides annoying the hell out of me?" Snape cradled his hand against his chest and winced when he tried to flex his fingers.
"I should have done this years ago when we were sixteen. Right after that prank you played on me. Now we are even."
Sirius touched his lip gingerly and his hand came away bloody.
Snape scowled at him.
"You know, I never understood you, Black. I just didn't get it why you had to take everybody under your wing. I couldn't see what you gained from protecting all those weaklings." His voice got very soft. "Until lately."
Sirius looked at him, understanding dawning in his arms.
"Yes, Laurel," the Potions master nodded and his face betrayed utter despair. "She is so annoyingly independent. But I'd protect her against everybody. I'd give up everything for her sake, kill everybody who tried to hurt her."
Sirius bowed his head.
"So, I kind of understand you now, "Snape went on and sat down on the stairs. "But on the other hand I understand you less than ever. How can you leave Claire? You love her. Your face, your words, your actions - it all but screams it into the world."
"And what if?" Sirius voice was like acid. "She wouldn't care."
"Damn it, Black, she is just like you." The Potions master frowned exasperatedly. "She may look like the proverbial lamb, but believe me, she is a lioness in lambs clothing. She is fiercely protective of you. Yes, she did something, said something that makes you ache. But I advice you from experience to question her motive before you sentence her - and yourself."
Sirius sighed and shook his head tiredly.
Snape stood and helped the other wizard to get up. "I know we are not friends, Black, but take my word on this. Don't blow your only chance to happiness. Don't let your pride overrule your heart."
* * *