Prongs nosed Padfoot away, leaving the wolf several yards of space because he had no idea what to expect. Moony gave a strangled yip and shuddered again. He tried to take another few steps forward, but his paws slipped out from under him, spilling him to the ground in a heap.
Several yards away, Padfoot whined softly and paced forward and back several steps next to Prongs, wanting to help but trying to keep himself a safe distance away. Sirius was having a hard time controlling Padfoot’s response to his emotions through the haze of exhaustion and worry. Padfoot didn’t give a knut for consequences, he only knew that Moony was making a Not Happy Noise and that called for Nosing and possibly Licking, and the longer Sirius stayed in dog form, the harder it was to override impulses that he himself wanted desperately to give in to.
Prongs saw Padfoot wavering; he stepped in front of the huge dog with a snort. When Padfoot moved to go around him, Prongs stamped a front hoof and barked, the warning clear. Prongs did his best to glare in a threatening manner, and Padfoot almost backed down, but at that moment Moony let out another yip and Padfoot shouldered Prongs out of the way with a sudden lunge.
Prongs nearly followed, but then he took another look at the convulsing werewolf and stayed back, digging furrows in the dirt with his hooves. He could feel Wormtail shifting on his head and nervously kneading the fur between his antlers.
Moony, all traces of Remus’ mind lost under the pain, lashed out with a paw when Padfoot got too close, and Padfoot cried in surprise when claws caught him across the shoulder. If Moony’s claws hadn’t already started to retract Padfoot might have suffered real damage; as it was, he shook off the sting and dropped to his belly.
Prongs barked again and took a few worried steps closer, but neither Padfoot nor Moony noticed.
Padfoot crawled towards Moony as submissively as possible, whining reassurance. Moony glared at him, but didn’t seem capable of another lunge, or of doing anything besides growling in between high-pitched cries of pain. Padfoot edged close enough to press his flank against Moony’s and nosed Moony’s shoulder. He could feel tremors shaking Moony’s whole body, which seemed to be shrinking against his own.
The coarse hairs tickling his nose were growing shorter as well, withdrawing into Moony’s skin. Padfoot closed his eyes to concentrate and snuffled the receding fur, relieved to smell Remus’ scent emerging faintly from underneath the smell of the wolf and the forest.
In spite of their worry, Prongs and Wormtail were fascinated by their first good look at Moony transforming back into Remus. It made their eyes water to watch Moony’s fur receding into skin in weird ripples, but they stared anyway. In the span of a few heartbeats, Moony’s snout and ears shrank into Remus’ face while his paws sorted themselves out into arms and legs.
Padfoot pressed against the wolf until Remus’ vocal cords shifted back into being, and the pained whuffing noise he was making turned into breathless human gasps for air. Bare skin rubbed against Padfoot as the change-back finished and Remus went unconscious.
Prongs let out a breath when he was sure it was over. He noticed Wormtail’s compulsive head-grooming had gone a bit desperate and twitched his ears at the itching sensation. He grunted, which despite their code actually meant “stop nibbling on me, you’re giving me a headache”. There was a pause in the activity on his head and a long moment before Wormtail squeaked twice. Prongs was about to grunt again when Wormtail finally added the third squeak, signaling that he was okay.
Prongs walked over to where Padfoot was still curled around Remus and pawed him, grunting a soft question. Padfoot lifted his head, seeming rather dazed, but then shook himself and stood shakily. He closed his eyes and furrowed his brow in concentration. Nothing happened for a long moment, longer that it should have been, but then Padfoot’s fur wavered uncertainly, and Sirius was suddenly crouched in front them.
Prongs lowered his head to nose at Sirius, who shook his head to clear it.
“I’m okay,” he reported, voice raw. “Just took more out of me than I thought.” Sirius used Prong’s shoulder to keep himself steady as he climbed to his feet, but swayed when he let go. “Too bloody high up,” he muttered, squeezing his eyes shut while he regained his equilibrium, “want my four paws back…no, I’m all right,” he answered Wormtail’s squeak.
Another moment and Sirius opened his eyes and was more or less steady. He bent down to heft Remus up and nearly toppled over, but managed to right himself. He could feel Remus’ heart still pounding against his chest.
“Don’t move,” Sirius warned Prongs as he tried to slide Remus onto the stag’s back as gently as possible. Considering the different ways they might manage this, Sirius finally decided that the best thing to do was to lay Remus on his stomach, his head leaning against Prong’s neck and his arms and legs dangling off either side. Hopefully the weight would be evenly distributed enough to keep him on as Prongs trotted, even limp as he was. With another glance at Remus’ nakedness, Sirius unbuttoned his shirt as quickly as his stiff fingers could manage and draped the shirt over Remus’ back, tucking the sleeves underneath him to keep it on.
He looked up to find a pair of dark rat eyes watching him.
“It’s cold out here,” Sirius explained, a little defensively. Wormtail sneezed in reply. Sirius held a hand out to him. “Come on,” he said. “We’ll go stop the Willow thrashing while Prongs brings Remus. He won’t be able to go much faster than a trot or Remus’ll slide right off.”
Wormtail scampered up Sirius’ arm and perched on his shoulder, and Sirius gritted his teeth as sharp rat claws dug into his bare skin. He shivered as Wormtail curled his namesake around Sirius’ neck.
“All right, Prongs?” Sirius asked, and Prongs took a few steps to make sure before barking the standard three times. “Good, I’ll leave Wormy to turn off the tree, then come back to the edge of the forest to meet you.”
Prongs barked again, then set off, trotting as briskly as he dared. Sirius took a worried look at the lightening sky. “We’re cutting it close,” he muttered, then changed to Padfoot. The change made him dizzy for a second, and he hoped he’d have enough energy to change back one more time before taking a rest.
He waited for Wormtail to settle in and get a good grip on his fur before setting off, loping past the over-burdened stag easily. They were only several dozen yards from the edge of the forest, he noted with relief, and it was the work of only a few minutes to run to the Willow, drop off Peter, then return to the Forest. He made the change one more time, then leaned heavily on tree while he waited for the dizziness and nausea to pass.
Prongs trotted up beside him as Sirius was catching his breath. He gave a worried bark, and Sirius noticed that Remus was starting to slide off one side. Sirius caught him before he tumbled off onto his head, and slid him off Prongs the rest of the way.
“Change back,” Sirius ordered Prongs. “If Pomfrey sees us, she’ll just think we’re ignoring her orders.”
Nodding, Prongs closed his eyes and his nose wrinkled in concentration. There was a pause, just as there had been when Sirius had tried to change back, and Sirius shifted Remus’ weight in his tired arms. Finally, James reappeared, looking a bit unsteady. He tried to take a step forward and toppled like a tree, arms flailing. Sirius let out a bark of laughter.
“Shut up, prat,” James sneered, struggling back to his feet, “you weren’t any better on two legs for the first minute.”
“Oh, stop pissing about and help me,” Sirius replied. “This idiot must weigh fifteen stone…been eating too much Honeydukes if you ask me.”
“If you’d stop giving it to him, he’d stop eating it,” James shot back, taking one of Remus’ arms and putting it over his shoulders, wincing as some of the bruises from the night stretched.
Between the two of them, they managed to get Remus adjusted into a fireman’s carry and started out of the forest. Remus stirred a little, but didn’t wake up. Sirius was shivering in the freezing air and thinking longingly about his warm fur coat, and the fact that he’d have to remember to wear robes or something they could put over top of Remus next time.
James couldn’t decide whether he was more starving than exhausted. The distance to the Willow seemed to be endless, but he concentrated on just putting one foot in front of the other and not dropping Remus.
They arrived at last and found the entrance to the tunnel, only pausing to ask Wormtail to stay there and come and get them if Pomfrey showed up early. The tunnel itself was another interminable distance, but they managed somehow. Sirius’ and James’ arms were nearly numb with strain by the time they laid Remus down on the oft-repaired mattress where he ended up on transformation mornings.
Sirius was reluctant to untangle his shirt from Remus, but they couldn’t leave it there for Pomfrey to find, and James replaced it quickly with one of the tattered blankets that had been folded at the end of the mattress. With a last glance at their unconscious friend, Sirius and James slipped back into the secret passage and down the tunnel to collect Wormtail and head for the Infirmary.
“Ready, lads?” James asked as they stood in front of Pomfrey’s office door. They’d cast Drying and Warming Charms on each other’s clothes so they didn’t look quite so suspicious, and even though it didn’t replace the food and sleep that they all needed, being warm and dry had given them all a false second (or third) wind.
“We’re going to be so irritatingly helpful, Pomfrey’ll beg us to get Remus next time,” Sirius said with a grin.
“Maybe just irritating…” Peter rolled his eyes. James knocked on the door and they all waited expectantly.
When Pomfrey opened her door and saw the three boys giving her innocent and pleading stares, she looked heavenward and sent up a prayer for patience.
“No, I haven’t got him yet,” she told them before they could say anything, “and no you can’t get him.”
“But Madam Pomfrey,” James started, eyes wide with concern, “it’s the middle of winter, it’s freezing outside!”
“It’s really no problem,” Sirius put in, “you can get things ready here and we’ll just nip out and be back before you know it…”
“No, you will not!” Pomfrey interrupted. “You know very well that I have expressly forbid you to do any such thing!”
“But Madam Pomfrey…” all three boys started in unison. She held up a hand and they all fell silent. Pomfrey reached up to massage her temples for a moment.
“I will make you a deal,” she said. “I will go and retrieve Remus if you promise me that I will not hear a peep from any of you for the rest of the day.”
“Can we stay until he wakes up?” Sirius asked. Pomfrey rubbed her temples harder.
“If you are absolutely silent,” she answered. “If you disturb anyone, Remus or anyone else, not only will I throw you out immediately, but you will not be allowed to visit Mr. Lupin at all next month!”
James, Peter, and Sirius exchanged silent glances; that was a pretty serious threat. Then James nodded. “We promise,” he said. “So…you’re getting Remus now, right?”
“Yes, Mr. Potter!” Pomfrey snapped. The three of them traded grins behind Pomfrey’s back as she gathered up some supplies, then practically slammed the door behind her.
“That went well,” James said. “Now if you don’t mind, I have to eat something RIGHT NOW or I am going to PERISH.”
They decided on a quick kitchen raid before Pomfrey returned, since all of them needed something more substantive than the usual sack of chocolate frogs they had brought for when Remus woke up.
“Went really well for a first time, yeah?” James asked on their way down.
“Except for the parts where you were running like a lunatic…” Peter made a face, but then grinned. “…it was brilliant! Especially the bit with the lake!”
“I could have lived without the lake,” Prongs said sourly, and the other two laughed.
“It really was brilliant, wasn’t it?” Sirius grinned, then the expression turned wistful. “Do you think Remus’ll remember any of it?” James and Peter looked at their feet.
“Who knows, right?” Peter said at last, smiling reassuringly. “He’s more Remus-y sometimes now, maybe he will remember a little…” Sirius knew that Pete was just trying to make him feel better, but he returned the smile anyway. He hoped Remus would remember at least a little of it. “You scratched the hell out of my neck, Pete.”
“Sorry, rat claws, nothing I can do about it,” Pete apologized, not looking sorry at all. “Let’s have a look.”
Sirius unbuttoned his shirt again and pulled it off one shoulder. James and Peter both sucked in breaths.
“Holy hell, what’s that?” James asked. Sirius looked down at his shoulder to see the slashes from Moony that he had forgotten all about. James reached out and touched the oozing cuts tentatively and Sirius jerked back with a yip. “It’s from Moony, isn’t it? Dammit, Sirius, you know should’ve stayed back.”
“Couldn’t help it,” Sirius growled, not meeting his eyes. “Look, can you just fix it? And don’t tell Remus, please? It’s fine, it isn’t bad.”
James eyed the slashes with a sigh. “You’d better do it, Pete, you’re better at healing spells than me.”
Peter drew out his wand and poked at Sirius’ shoulder. Sirius grimaced, but didn’t move away, and watched as Peter murmured the spell and the cuts closed over. They were still angry and red, and the skin around them was bruised, but the bleeding had stopped.
“That’s the best I can do,” Peter said. “The rest’ll have to heal on their own unless you ask Pomfrey.”
“No!” Sirius said immediately. “It’ll be fine, they’ll heal. It’s fine.”
James and Peter exchanged a glance, but let the subject drop as they reached the secret entrance to the kitchens and tickled the pear. Fifteen minutes later, they staggered out with as much food as they could carry and hustled back to the infirmary, managing to hide their stash underneath Remus’ usual bed just in time to look totally innocent as Pomfrey returned with Remus. They ‘helped’ her get Remus into bed, mostly by making suggestions and getting underfoot, making sure she would go back into her office and not come out for a long time.
“We’re probably driving her to drink,” Peter reflected as they dragged chairs near Remus’ bed and got comfortable.
“Who cares, get out the damn food!” James demanded, tearing into the first items they liberated from under the bed with abandon. When even James was full, they talked about the night, leaning more and more heavily on Remus’ bed and stretching out tiredly.
When Pomfrey came out to check on Remus later, she found all four of them sound asleep. She tsked at the food crumbs scattered across the blankets, but only dusted the bed off without waking them.