Sirius smirked as he watched the shadowy form of Severus Snape shuffle down the path from the castle.
"Come on, Padfoot! We haven't got much time left." Remus called over his shoulder as he slipped between two roots of the temporarily motionless Whomping Willow. Peter followed him, eyeing the tree warily, as if it might reanimate at any moment. Chuckling to himself, Sirius wove through the branches, smacking a few on his way, just for the hell of it.
James, leaning against the trunk, raised his eyebrows. "What're you so cheerful about?"
Sirius grinned wickedly. "We're in for a bit of fun tonight," he said, pointing back to the cloaked figure high above them on the path. "I've got some entertainment lined up."
James snorted. They shared a nearly identical sense of humor, which they never failed to use at every opportunity. Sirius clapped him on the shoulder and jumped through the entrance into the hidden passage beneath the tree. James followed, wondering what Sirius was planning. He grinned, but it faded quickly as another thought occurred to him. What if he sees Remus? But he waved the thought away. Snape would never get past the Whomping Willow.
Severus Snape, hooded and cloaked – students weren't allowed outside the castle after dark – slowed to a stop a safe distance from the Whomping Willow. It was perfectly still, as if carved from stone. As far back as Snape could remember it was always in motion – thrashing those thick branches wildly in its unending crusade to dismember anything that came near. So at least this part was true – the tree could be controlled. But as he watched, the branches started waving sluggishly back and forth, like they were shaking off the remnants of sleep. As he neared, they picked up speed, flinging themselves toward him with terrifying force. A solid hit from one of the thicker branches would break any of his limbs. He swallowed slowly, remembering what Black had told him.
As a rule, he attempted to ignore everything that Sirius Black said to him, as it was always either an insult or a provocation. But earlier today, Black had stayed behind after a routine round of abuse from his gang, and said in an off-hand sort of way, "I know you're trying for figure out what we've been up too lately. You're not being very subtle about it." Snape had glared, but remained silent. "Anyway, here's your chance. Go to the Whomping Willow tonight after dark. There's a passage hidden between a couple of roots." Smirking, he turned to go.
Snape grabbed his arm, holding him back. "I'm not an idiot.” He hissed. “No one can get close to it. People have been trying since first year and all of them end up in the hospital wing. Not the smartest prank you've ever thought of, Black.”
Twisting out of Snape’s hold, he smiled. "There's a way. We've been managing it for quite a while. Just get a long stick and prod the little nob near the base of the trunk. The tree will freeze for about a minute." He ran off after the others, calling back over his shoulder, "See you later, Snivellus!"
Now, hours later, as he watched the surging branches of the Whomping Willow, Snape wondered what the catch was. He knew there must be some sort of trick, something to make him look the fool, otherwise Black wouldn't have bothered speaking to him at all. It wouldn’t have been worth his time. But the possibility of catching Potter and his gang in the act of something he was sure was at least suspension-worthy was too enticing. He’d noticed that they seemed to disappear every month, and he wanted very much to know where it was they disappeared to, and what they were doing. It seemed that no matter what Black and Potter did, they got away with barely a slap on the wrist. Snape had been waiting for some proper punishment for the things they did – not the least of which was their constant harassment of him. But most teachers were so enamored by their skills in the classroom, or on the quidditch pitch, that it didn’t much matter that they got into trouble every now and again.
Looking around, he found a few twigs scattered on the path. He took out his wand, pointed at the thickest of the twigs, and muttered, "Engorgio." More confident now he had seen the tree in its immobile state, he picked up the elongated pole and walked as near to the Whomping Willow as he dared. It strained toward him, limbs thrashing. Very carefully, Snape lay on his stomach and pushed the pole forward. He saw the nob on the truck, lifted the pole slightly and prodded it. The tree froze instantly.
He raised his head. The branches were caught in mid swipe, the tree itself tilted. Quickly he scrambled up and wound his way through the limbs. His minute was waning fast. Looking frantically for the passage Black had told him about, he kept one eye on the trunk, alert to any sign of movement. After several seconds of searching, he thought, Maybe there is no passage. Maybe this was the joke. Get him as close to the Whomping Willow as possible and watch it beat him to a pulp. They’re probably standing a safe distance away, waiting for the show to begin.
Just as he was considering turning back while he still had time, his foot caught on something and he pitched forward. But instead of falling flat on his stomach, he slid headfirst through a hole between two roots. He landed in a heap, face and arms covered with dirt. Breathing heavily, he turned over and sat up. As he blinked dust from his eyes, he heard an inarticulate grunt from behind him. Turning, he came face to face with James Potter. The astonished look on his face was almost enough to convince Snape that this little escapade had been worth the risk. He sneered, brushing strands of hair out of his face. "What's the matter, Potter? Thought I wouldn't find out what you were up to?"
"What - how did you get down
here?" He was fighting to wipe the surprise from his face.
"Black told me. Where is he? I'll have to thank him. This is the last time you’ll use this place as your little hideout, Potter. I wonder what the headmaster will say."
James Potter was frantically organizing his thoughts. This wasn't a complete disaster – if he could just get Snape to leave sooner rather than later. Quickly, he mastered his expression. "What do you think will happen?" He said, looking pityingly down at Snape, whose pasty skin was smeared with dirt. "The worst you've found us doing is being out of bed after hours. That's hardly worth a detention."
Snape's self-satisfied smirk
flickered momentarily. “This tree is
out-of-bounds for students. That’s worth
more than detention.”
James snorted. “Yeah, but are you really so desperate that you’d risk the same punishment just to make sure we got our just desserts? That’s pretty pathetic, even for you. Why don’t you just go on back to bed, eh, Snivellus?”
Snape flushed. “Shut up, Potter. What are you doing here anyway?”
“Like we’d tell you,” said a voice from the shadows. Sirius came up from behind James and threw an arm across his shoulders, eyeing Snape’s disheveled clothes and dirty face. “So you decided to drop in then? Good.” He grinned, then leaned toward James. “It’s about time.” Sirius whispered softly in his ear. “We should get going.”
“What are you two whispering about?” Snape shouted, annoyed.
Sirius looked back at him indifferently. “You can come too if you like.” He grinned again and started off down the passage.
James’ eyes widened and he grabbed Sirius’ arm. “You can’t be serious,” he hissed. “You’re going to let him see?”
“Of course not. Just scare him a little.” The glint in Sirius’ eyes worried James.
“Come off it,” James said, with forced nonchalance. “He’s not worth it. And besides, we don’t know if we can keep, uh, Mooney under control if there’s a human running around down here.”
Sirius shrugged. “It’s his own fault he showed up.”
“Because you told him too.”
“I just told him how to get here.”
“You as much as dared him to come and catch us.” James said, exasperated.
While they bickered, Snape began to inch his way back toward the opening he’d come through, thinking that perhaps this little expedition might not be worth it if even James Potter was reluctant to follow through.
“Sirius, I think this crosses the line, even for you.” James was feeling very nervous. This couldn’t happen. The worst-case scenario was that Snape would see everything and tell everyone. Or he would be bitten. Either way, Remus would be forced to leave Hogwarts and who knows what would happen to the rest of them.
“Locomotor mortis,” growled Sirius, suddenly. He’d raised his wand and was pointing it at Snape, who had started to climb out of the passage. His legs snapped together, and he fell back. “Now don’t go running off, Snivelly.” James grabbed Sirius’ arm, but he pulled it free. “Don’t be so worried, Prongs.” He said with a jaunty smile. “Everything’ll be fine. And after this, he’ll be too afraid of us to cause any more trouble.” And with that he ran off down the passage.
James turned to Snape, who was
wriggling on the floor, trying to bring himself into a sitting position. James quickly performed the counter-curse and
pulled him to his feet. Snape wrenched
himself away and picked up his wand, aiming it at James.
“What’s going on here?” He demanded.
James put up his hands. “Listen, Snape. I know I’m the last person you’d listen too, but you should leave. It’s not safe for you here.”
“What do you mean it isn’t safe? And why do you care anyway?” Snape was starting to get nervous, and excited. This could be bigger than he thought – and the bigger the trouble, the worse the punishment, for them but also for him.
“Snape, listen to me, just –
But at that moment, a gut-wrenching scream came from somewhere far down the passage, followed by several guttural moans. James whipped around, staring wide-eyed into the dark.
Snape swung his wand in the
direction of the sounds. “Wh-what was
James turned back toward him, panicked. “Snape, you have to go. Now!”
“I want to know what’s going on!” shouted Snape, sounding braver than he felt.
Another scream rent the air. This one sounded feral, more like a howl.
James lunged forward, dragging Snape toward the hole between the roots. “Hurry! You’ve got to get out of here!”
Snape fought him, twisting madly.
“What’s happening? What’s down there?”
James grunted with the effort of holding onto him. “No time…to explain.” He huffed. He turned and pushed Snape as close to the hole as he could. “Just go!” He yelled.
Snape was about to try and punch him when a furious barking came from behind them. He turned to see an enormous black dog hurtling down the tunnel. It stopped several feet away, growling at them menacingly. Then it turned and stared back the way it had come, hunched and waiting.
“Come on!” Snarled James, who’d hoisted
himself up through the entrance to the tunnel.
He held a hand out to Snape, but Snape ignored it. He was sure he was
about to learn everything. The dog started barking again, and Snape could hear
something else moving through the tunnel.
It sounded very big.
“Snape, move it!” Yelled James grabbing the hood of his cloak. He was being dragged backward, the neck of the cloak tight around his throat, but still he stared down the tunnel, waiting to see what was coming.
James pulled until he could grab Snape’s arm. He couldn’t let him see Remus, not like this. And he couldn’t let Remus hurt anybody. He’d never forgive himself. So he dragged the struggling Snape until he had a solid hold under both arms. He started to heave him up between the roots.
Snape could see a monstrous shape sprinting down the tunnel. As it came closer, he saw its yellow eyes and terrifyingly sharp, snapping teeth. It howled; an eerie, feral moan, and his body went rigid with fear. This was far worse than anything he’d expected. The thing, the monster, drew nearer with every bound, when all of a sudden, the dog lunged at it and they tumbled backward in a rolling mass of black fur and gnashing teeth. The monster roared its frustration, straining against the dog, crazed eyes fixed on Snape.
James felt Snape’s body seize up and hauled him out of the tunnel onto the ground at the base of the Whomping Willow. Snape looked around wildly, in shock, then fixed his black eyes on James. He stood shakily and opened his mouth, but was thrown forward by a swinging branch. James ducked another, grabbed a fistful of Snape’s clothing and starting running. He could feel Snape stumble behind him, when another branch caught him in the stomach. He flew backward. Barely breathing, he staggered to his feet got hold of Snape again and they pelted beyond the reach of the Whomping Willow. When they reached a safe distance, James released his hold and Snape scrambled away from him. Eyes wide and confused, he stared at James, who was clutching his stomach, trying to remember how to breathe.
James didn’t know how much Snape had seen, but he could guess. Because when he looked up and said, carefully, “Severus…” Snape had clambered to his feet and begun to stumble up the path toward the castle without looking back. James knew he was on his way to Professor Dumbledore. But that wasn’t what he was worried about. Obviously, Dumbledore knew all about Remus’ problem. No, James was worried that if Snape came across anyone else before he got to the headmaster’s office he would tell them, and then everything would be ruined.Knowing there was nothing he could do, he stood and went to help Sirius.