The snow begins to fall at twilight. Steel-grey clouds crouch too close to the earth, shrouding the hills around Hogsmeade, but yellow light shines cheerily from the windows along High Street and enchanted candles wink in the trees. Remus pauses when he sees the first snowflakes spinning into the muted glow of the streetlamps. Tilting his face upward, he watches the confused, chaotic beginnings of the storm appearing from nowhere, as snowflakes always do.
Hogsmeade is silent and the streets are deserted, but smoke twists from the chimney of every home, filling the air with the scent of woodsmoke and cinnamon. For a moment he listens: the faint rattle of snowflakes on windows and ice, soft music so distant he can not identify the tune, his own steady breaths. Shifting the parcel under his arm, Remus resumes walking. His boots crunch noisily on the old snow and frozen mud.
He passes through town without stopping, thankful that there is no one about. He has visited Hogsmeade during the day only a few times in the past six months, forcing himself not to skulk about with his shoulders hunched and his eyes averted. But keeping his head high only means that he sees the suspicious glares of the shopkeepers, most of whom seem just as worried about a direct correlation between lycanthropy and shoplifting than any bloodthirsty tendencies the scruffy former professor might demonstrate.
The front window of Dervish and Banges, the last shop on High Street, is strung with sad garland and limp tinsel, a faded Scintillating Charm flashing weakly behind the dusty glass. Remus quickens his stride, feeling the cold worm its way through his threadbare coat. He turns up his collar as he reaches the stile at the end of the village. The road is darker here, and the snow is now falling steadily, filling the forest with a hushed patter. Remus glances back at the village, distant streetlamps glowing through the trees and snowfall, then faces the rugged hill and begins to climb.
In the mouth of the cave, the dog growls menacingly.
"It's me." A man emerges from the forest, dressed in a worn coat and carrying a bulky bag under his arm. He stomps his boots on the clear ground outside the cave. Peering from the darkness, the dog falls silent and trots forward a few steps; the odours from the package are tantalising, a mixture of warmth and spice that make his mouth water. Remus looks down at him and says, simply, "I brought dinner." Then, cocking one eyebrow in question, "Aren't you going to invite me in?"
The dog turns and walks back into the cave. There is no fire in the little wood pile, no light at all. On a bed of ragged blankets beside the sloping stone wall, the dog stops and takes in a sharp, wheezing breath. A subtle shift in air pressure pushes a slight breeze through the cave, and Sirius balances in a crouch, looking over his shoulder at Remus. Pushing himself to his feet, he gestures at the barren cave and the massive animal watching warily from the darkest corner. "Make yourself at home. Mind the hippogriff." Even to his own ears, his voice sounds rough from disuse.
Remus bows to Buckbeak and waits for the imperious nod before stepping further into the cave. "It's a bit chilly in here," he remarks casually.
Sirius shrugs. "I'm used to it."
"I'm not." Remus looks at him with something that isn't quite a smile and sets the package on the floor. Kneeling beside the wood pile, he pulls his wand from his coat pocket and pokes it into the kindling. A brilliant orange flame leaps up, illuminating his face with warm light and filling the cave with a pleasant crackling sound. Sirius watches, standing awkwardly aside, then glances about the cave before he can stop himself. Shadow and light dance on the walls; Buckbeak's eyes shine, half-lidded and suspicious, from his claimed corner. Light spills out of the mouth of the cave. Sirius watches the snow and the forest, nervously eyeing the dozens of new shadows that have sprung to life in the flickering firelight, then pulls his gaze away and looks down at Remus. The other man has turned his attention from the fire to the package; he is untying the makeshift laces and searching through the interior with a small frown of concentration.
Sirius clears his throat. Remus looks up expectantly.
"Someone will see the light," Sirius says.
"Oh. Right." Without standing, Remus turns and flicks his wand toward the entrance of the cave. A dark, oily shimmer passes over the opening then fades, leaving no trace. "Now they won't. Ah, here we are." He pulls at a wrapped bundle; it expands as he yanks it free from the confines of the Packing Charm. "Blankets," he explains, holding the thick bundle up to Sirius. Sirius stares blankly at the blue and yellow gingham pattern, resisting the urge to squint at its shamelessly bright cheer. After a moment, Remus lowers the stack of blankets to the floor and, with a brief glance that Sirius doesn't try to interpret, turns back to the bag, rooting around again. "I have it on good authority," he says, his voice deliberately light, "that hippogriffs are quite hard on bedding. I thought you could use some new blankets."
Slowly, as if every limb is coming awake after hours of numbness, Sirius feels the warmth from the fire seeping into his skin. Hesitantly, he steps forward, then lowers himself to the ground, sitting cross-legged and leaning toward the heat. The fire highlights gold and silver in Remus' hair, accentuating the lines in his face, but his expression is soft and relaxed as he removes a covered baking pan and a pair of plates from the bag. Behind him, the snow is falling steadily.
Sirius draws his legs up, hooking his arms around his knees, and forces himself to look at the fire, to ignore the unsettling contrast between the yellow light and the darkness outside, to ignore the instinct that tells him to flinch at every shifting shadow on the stone walls. He moves backwards and to the side, trying to find a position from which he can see Buckbeak, Remus and the mouth of the cave, as well as the unoccupied corner to his right and the thick grove of trees just outside. There is no wind, the trees are still, but Sirius doesn't like the way the snow blankets everything with a pale mantle. He wants to be able to see the outline of every familiar branch; he doesn't want the shapes and edges to change. He stifles the sudden, ridiculous desire to dash outside and shake the snow from the trees.
And he realises, with a start, the Remus is watching him.
Sirius turns his head quickly. Buckbeak is watching him, too.
He scowls, then, flexing his fingers uncertainly, reaches for the bundle of blankets. They are tied up neatly with knotted twine; he can tell, even though they are folded and squashed, that these blankets are soft and warm. Two or three of them will provide decent padding on the stone. Sirius loosens the twine.
"I'm not much of a cook," Remus says suddenly. He sets the two plates on the floor and lifts the cover from the baking pan.
"I--" Sirius stops himself from saying I know. He doesn't know--
Merlin, what is that smell? It fills the entire cave in an instant, savoury and rich, warm and spicy, so familiar that the memory of it is like a warm bath, washing over his mind and distracting him from anything else. I know that smell. I can't remember--gods, I know it. What--
"But lasagne," Remus continues, "is one thing I can do well."
Swallowing hard, Sirius meets Remus' eyes across the fire. Then, with a sharp tug, he pulls the twine from the blankets and grabs the first from the thick pile. Standing up quickly, he shakes the blanket open and spreads it on the ground. At Remus' curious look, he draws himself up and asks, indignantly, "You don't think I expect visitors to Buckbeak Manor to sit on the cold stone, do you?"
Remus laughs. For a moment, the shadows quail, the cold retreats, and Sirius grins as he unfolds another blanket.
Remus forgot to bring glasses. He also forgot a knife--though he has three spoons, for some reason--so he presses a fork through the lasagne and leverages a messy chunk onto one of the plates. "There's wine, as well," he says, handing the plate to Sirius. He leans over to pull the wine bottle from the bag and sets it on the blanket between them.
Buckbeak remains perfectly still. He is, Remus decides, either exceptionally well-mannered or snobbishly disdainful of Italian food. Either way, the creature's eyes glittering like jewels in the dark corner are slightly unnerving; Remus tries not to feel guilty as he scoops himself a healthy serving of lasagne and offers none to the hippogriff.
Sirius has already started to eat, surprisingly slowly for a man who must be starving, closing his eyes and lifting each bite almost reverently. Remus watches him for a moment before starting on his own meal.
"Merlin, Moony," Sirius breathes after a few minutes of silence. "This is brilliant. Where did you learn to cook this?"
"Italy," Remus replies.
He is looking at his fork and the fire just out of focus beyond, but he can feel Sirius stiffen beside him. The silence is a beat too long, Sirius' voice a shade forced when he says, "Well, it's good."
Sirius' fork clatters on his plate. He picks up the wine and holds it for a moment, frowning at the label. "This is from Italy, too," he murmurs, so quietly Remus isn't sure if he's supposed to hear, Then, louder: "Redigaffi. Vino da tavola di Toscano." Though his voice is hoarse, the words roll off his tongue with a perfect aristocratic accent. Still frowning, Sirius adds darkly, "But there's no corkscrew."
"Hmmm, no," Remus agrees. "A pity we don't know any wizards. They could open it with magic."
Sirius' response is sharp and abrupt, more like a dog coughing than a man laughing, but he draws his wand and taps it against the neck of the bottle. "Sommelius." The cork slides free with an audible pop. Sirius starts but he catches it smoothly, then tosses it up casually and catches it again.
Remus relaxes. With the Concealment Charm and the fire, the cave has become quite warm; he slips his coat off and sets it aside. Sirius has already shed his tattered robes and is wearing a t-shirt and trousers that look as if they were rescued from a Muggle dustbin. In fading red print across the front of the shirt are the words South Sallington Ladies' Orchid Society.
"No glasses," Remus tells him. "We'll have to drink from the bottle."
Sirius raises the bottle and remarks flippantly, "Just like in school." He pauses for only a second, then takes a quick drink, swallows noisily, and passes the bottle to Remus. Clearing his throat twice, Sirius scraps his fork idly across his plate, tracing lines in the sauce. "So."
Remus lowers the bottle.
"Why were you in Italy?"
Relieved, Remus takes a drink before answering. "I was working at the Ermanno Scevola Universitá Magica, in Florence."
Remus shakes his head. "Research. During an excavation under the Cappelle dei Medici a group of magical archaeologists found the skeletons of a creature they didn't recognise, something like a cross between a manticore and a chimera. They wanted somebody to identify the animal and look for mentions of it in Roman history."
"What was it?" Sirius sounds genuinely curious.
Remus sips again from the bottle. "I don't know. I left before I could finish the research. I never saw the findings published."
Sirius takes the bottle and lifts it halfway to his mouth. "Why did you leave?"
"The Italians may do food and wine better than the English," Remus replies dryly, "but unfortunately their opinion of lycanthropy is no more enlightened. One of the professors...learned about my being a werewolf. The department was quite displeased."
After a moment of silence, Sirius asks, "How did he find out?"
"I told him."
Sirius chokes on the wine and sputters incredulously, "You told him? Told him? Willingly? But you never--"
His outburst ends as abruptly as it began. Sirius sets the wine bottle on the floor carefully, almost delicately, and runs his long fingers through his hair. He is looking at the fire, his jaw set and his expression stony, and though Remus stares at him for several seconds he does not turn to face him.
"Yes," Remus agrees quietly. "I almost never tell anyone." Relief flickers across Sirius' face so quickly that Remus wonders if he imagines it. There are some things that haven't changed. But he feels like he needs to explain. "I trusted him. It was a mistake; I was wrong; I lost a job because of it. It was a long time ago." He shrugs, and the casual tone of his voice is not feigned. It seems like such a small betrayal, a pang in the distant past, though it was barely seven years ago. Then, with a slight smile, he nods at the bottle on the stone in front of them. "He sent that to me."
"He gave you wine?" Sirius scowls at the fire. "Why?"
"Cavoli riscaldati," Remus says, his smile widening. "He does every year."
"Cavoli...." Frowning, Sirius finally looks at Remus. "What does that mean?"
Instead of answering, Remus picks up the bottle and raises it to his lips.
There are two types of people, Sirius thinks. There are people who can sit quietly beside a fire and simply watch the flames. And there are people who cannot sit by a fire without constantly poking, prodding, playing and pestering it with some charred stick.
Remus is the latter type of person. If he is near a fire, he finds a stick, and he is occupied for hours. He has, as far as Sirius knows, always been this way; the first time he truly spoke to Remus, beyond awkward first-year mumbles and questions about where the Great Hall was located, it was almost two weeks after they had started at Hogwarts. Sirius had awoken in the middle of the night and, unable to fall back asleep, crept down to the common room. He was surprised to find Remus there already, sitting on the hearth of the great fireplace, nudging the burning logs with the cast iron poker, his mind obviously a million miles away. Years later, Sirius checked a lunar chart and realised that 15 September 1970 was a full moon, but at the time his only thought had been that he didn't know whether having a fellow insomniac in the dorm was a relief or a bother.
Remus has always been this way, and Sirius feels an absurd giddiness fluttering in his chest when he sees that Remus is still this way. Remus is sitting with his right leg drawn up, leaning slightly toward the fire, a long, crooked stick in his left hand. He rolls his sleeves up to the elbows when he moves closer to the fire, and he listens attentively, smiling and laughing at all the appropriate times while Sirius tells him about Harry's adventure with the Hungarian Horntail. Sirius suspects that Remus already knows the story, but he can't seem to stop himself from telling it again, feeling the words tumble from his mouth as if he has no control over them, dreading the conclusion that comes too soon and leaves him with nothing to fill the silence.
Outside, the snow is still coming down. The ground and trees are blanketed in a thick, wet layer, and when Sirius looks past Remus through the entrance of the cave he imagines that he can feel the cool, muffling effect of the snow, piling all around, deceptive in its insulating comfort and falling without pause until the sky is empty and all the clouds are sapped dry. Shivering slightly, Sirius concentrates on the flames. With the crooked, blackened stick, Remus is breaking up a charred chunk of wood in the core of the fire, pushing the tip of the stick deliberately into the cracks and prying it apart, revealing within a hot red glow that slowly fades.
There is an old scar on Remus' left forearm, running crosswise from wrist to elbow. Sirius studies it for a few minutes, noticing the way it shifts over the muscle in Remus' arm. Then, almost without thinking, he reaches out to touch the scar.
Startled, Remus jerks the stick out of the fire and looks at Sirius.
"That looks...like it was painful," Sirius says stupidly, pulling his hand back. He wants to ask why the cut didn't heal properly, but he feels like he should already know the answer. He feels like he has done nothing but ask questions, all night, and he doesn't know if it's the answers or the wine or the heat that has him feeling slightly dizzy.
Remus looks at the scar as if seeing it for the first time.
"When did you--" Sirius stops.
"Oh." There is a half-amused expression on Remus' face. "I didn't do that to myself," he explains. "Not that one. Here." He sets the stick down and pulls at a chain around his neck, lifting it over his head and holding it out to Sirius. Two odd charms dangle on the chain: a long, curving black claw and small white carving of a cat-like creature. Sirius reaches for the chain and flinches when Remus' hand brushes his own. Remus ignores the reaction. Then, he shrugs again. "It was a long time ago."
You keep saying that. Sirius examines the claw more closely, aware of Remus' eyes on him, aware of the pause he is expected to fill with yet another question. The claw is black--no, darker than black, polished but not gleaming, not shining in the firelight; the claw is swallowing the light rather than reflecting it. Suddenly nervous of the smooth, razor-sharp curve, Sirius holds it away from himself. As the chain sways, the black claw and the white charm seem to repel one another, maintaining the slightest distance despite hanging together. Wordlessly, he passes the chain back to Remus. Their hands touch again and, unprepared, Sirius flinches away.
"Sorry," he mutters quickly.
"Sorry for what?"
Sorry I can't control it. Sorry I can't stop myself. Sorry that I remember, in spite of everything, waking up and not knowing where your limbs ended and mine began, and skin and breath and--and now I can't even--
"What was it?" Sirius asks, his voice too loud. He gestures toward the chain, which Remus is slipping over his head again. "The thing with the claw--what was it?"
For a moment, he thinks Remus isn't going to answer. Remus picks up the stick again and jabs it into the fire. "A shape-shifter," he says finally, then frowns, as if he is dissatisfied with the answer. "A man-eating shape-shifter. In India," he adds as an afterthought.
"You were in India?"
Something about the way Remus glances at him tells Sirius this is not as safe a question as he thought. After another pause, Remus nods. "I lived there for a few years. I went there...that April. After." Remus doesn't notice that his stick has caught fire and is burning quietly at the end.
So here we are, Sirius thinks. Finally.
After a few months, Sirius had realised that there were still seasons in Azkaban. Twisted, wronged, tinged with the same murky shadow that suffocated every moment of every day and night in the fortress on the sea, but seasons nonetheless. The sun moved across the sky, more visible in winter because his cell faced south. The stars circled at night, twinkling in their familiar patterns when the fog lifted and he remembered to look at them. Storms howled and ebbed. The year changed; the seasons passed. "But it didn't matter, it didn't matter that the sun shone in spring or summer, didn't matter that it rained all winter, didn't matter that the wind seemed to blow through the walls, because every change--it's always--they make it, that's what they do, they make it a change for the worse, the seasons are just another way the world is shifting and telling you--taking away something you forgot, something you can't even remember, but a little bit of it dies every time you realise the air is warmer tonight, or there's a storm blowing in--because it's gone, you can't remember--"
Looking up, he sees that Remus is watching him. He hadn't meant to speak aloud. Remus is staring at him, brown eyes wide and steady, reflecting the firelight, mouth slightly open, posture suddenly tense and perfectly still. He says nothing, but he doesn't look away.
Sirius glances down, inhaling slowly over the tightness in his chest, and picks up the nearly empty wine bottle. "I was waiting." He picks at the label, then continues without looking up, "I could only see to the south--I did the calculations because I needed to know and because I could remember them, that's not something they can--astronomy lessons are neutral. I was looking south at night and I could see the Dog Star on the horizon if the fog lifted, just for a few minutes at dusk--and I remember thinking, 'It's spring now. It's spring now and he hasn't--'"
Sirius stops abruptly. He doesn't want to finish the thought; he wants Remus to finish it for him, to recognise it and say it aloud and already know.
But if Remus knows--surely Remus knows, Sirius tells himself, ripping fiercely at the wine label, Remus always knows--if he knows, he isn't saying. He isn't going to help. He's going to let the silence lurk between them, a cold dark formless thing, reaching from the fire and across the ridiculous blue and yellow blanket, with fingers and tentacles that Sirius can feel but not see. But Remus doesn't feel the silence shivering through the cave. Remus only stares at Sirius and says nothing.
"I waited for you," Sirius says. "I waited, because there were times when--when it was easier to think, when it was easier to remember, and I told myself over and over again, 'Moony will tell them the truth, Moony will know it wasn't me, Moony will know, he'll know and he'll tell them.'" Sirius can hear his voice rising, can feel it lashing against Remus' infuriating silence. He grips the neck of the wine bottle in a hand that is suddenly shaking and cannot stop himself from continuing. "I waited--it was so fucking cold in the winter, so fucking cold and sometimes it was the wind, sometimes it was everybody, but there were always screams, and it was so goddamn cold I couldn't sleep for months--but I waited for spring, and I waited for summer, and I kept thinking, 'He'll come for me, he'll tell them, he knows,' because you know I couldn't even think your name? I couldn't even--they took--but it didn't matter, did it? Nothing to wait for in the end. You believed them, you listened to them, you never even thought--"
Suddenly unable to go on, Sirius stops and takes in a sharp breath. He looks at the wine bottle clenched in his grip, the words on the label blurred, the liquid sloshing wildly with the tremble of his hand.
"Sirius--" Remus' voice is quiet, gentle.
"No--it doesn't--it doesn't fucking matter--"
With a strangled growl, Sirius hurls the bottle at the opposite side the cave. It shatters, splashing the pale stone with red wine. Buckbeak squawks and flexes his wings in protest.
Remus doesn't even flinch.
Sirius drops his head suddenly and presses both hands to his face, closing his eyes and holding his breath, feeling the anger that trembles in every muscle fade as quickly as it arose, leaving in its wake a cold ache in his neck and back and the desire to transform into Padfoot and curl up on the ragged blankets by the wall.
But he doesn't change. He doesn't even move. Sirius can feel the silence growing again, sapping the heat from the fire and filling the expanse of gingham blanket between them. Remus is motionless, carefully holding himself in limbo, in a painfully familiar stillness. It is the same stillness that froze Remus' wary expression when twelve-year-old James had nervously blurted, "We know you're a werewolf!" in the dorm one cold night, the same stillness that dictated Remus' motions when he returned from the Registry on his seventeenth birthday, that came over him when the headlines screamed of Dark Creatures attacking a young family in Yorkshire, when Frank Longbottom sat in their kitchen and quietly told them that the Dark Mark was shining over the ruins of the pub where John Lupin's band had been playing. And when they'd argued about who to trust and who to suspect, when to fight and when to hide, the secrets Remus wouldn't share and the reasons Sirius wouldn't hear--
Remus moves and Sirius looks up in panic. "Don't go," he gasps desperately.
But Remus isn't standing to leave; he is only shifting his position, leaning back on his hands and still watching Sirius with the solemn, unwavering gaze. Feeling foolish, Sirius turns away and doesn't know if he should apologise or shout or remain silent.
"I did," Remus says quietly.
Startled, Sirius looks at him.
"I did believe them. The Ministry, the Aurors. At the--"
"It doesn't matter," Sirius interrupts quickly.
Remus talks over him, "At the Ministry that night, and the days after, I was questioned by a hundred different people, heard a hundred different versions of the story, but every one of them said the same thing. They had witnesses. They had a confession. They had Dumbledore's testimony about the Fidelius Charm, they had Voldemort's defeat and the Boy Who Lived and Peter's finger in a box and a medal for his mum's shelf, speeches and congratulations and celebrations and bloody fireworks all over England and I--" Remus stops abruptly and sits forward, rubbing a hand over his face and exhaling. He shakes his head slightly, as if rejecting some private thought. Sirius holds his breath as the stillness and the silence scurry into the shadows. "I don't have an explanation for you, Sirius. I hated you for what I thought you did. I--I don't have an explanation."
A burst of anger flashes through Sirius. Remus isn't looking at him anymore; he's watching the flames, his face lined and tired, unreadable in the firelight.
Sirius bites back the sudden urge to laugh. What did you expect?
Remus always had explanations; Remus always had reasons and excuses, lengthy rationalisations that were often ridiculous and only occasionally satisfactory. Remus used to drive Sirius mad with his calm arguments and relentless logic, his roundabout way of avoiding stark honesty by hiding his thoughts under a flurry of words.
And that was what Sirius expected. A small, hot glow that he hadn't even known he was carrying begins to fade. His Remus, the Remus he always knew, even in the darkest winter nights when there were no names and no faces in the walls of stone, his Remus doesn't leave loose ends sparking like live wires.
But that was a long time ago.
Scrambling to his feet, Sirius winces as pins and needles shoot through his left leg. He rounds the fire, broken glass crunching under his shoe, and strides to the entrance of the cave. For a moment, he considers changing into Padfoot, but for the first time in thirteen interminable years there is nothing appealing about the transformation. The shape of his skin, the stiffness in his muscles, the tingle of magic as he steps through the Concealment Charm, the shock of cold and sudden wet brush of snowflakes on his face--he has spent too much time spent sliding from one form to another, too much time feeling awkwardly tall and conspicuous on two legs, not remembering whether or not he can scratch his ear with his leg, thinking himself naked without fur and blind without scent.
Sirius inhales the cold air and closes his eyes, raises his face to meet the fat, wet flakes. He can feel the Concealment Charm behind him, a vacuous lack of sound and heat, an absence of sense. The air is bitterly cold, stinging his bare arms and burning his lungs; the snow seeps through the cracked soles of his shoes. Even with his eyes closed he knows that the barren branches of the forest are looming overhead, a web of knotted arms poised against the sky.
Remus steps out of the cave behind him.
Sirius tells him, "It doesn't matter."
I keep saying that. He doesn't know if it's true or not.
Remus inhales, and Sirius waits for the reply. But the other man says nothing. Sirius shivers and rubs his hands over his arms. A few hours of warmth and he's going soft. Winter is just getting started; the long dark months stretch before him, grey like the stone of the cave, as hollow as his startled cries when he wakes in the dark. He can feel Remus standing close to him, a warm mass to his left, and after a moment Sirius begins again, "I doesn't--I don't--It's not--" Nice and articulate, mate. He opens his eyes and looks into the forest, at lumps of white that no longer resemble bushes, strange dips and depressions filling as the world is cloaked in silence. He feels the snow melting against his ankles. He tries again. "Of course you--everybody did. They had--it was just the same as everybody else."
"Not the same," Remus counters immediately.
"But you--" Sirius swallows and rubs his arms again, more vigorously.
"I hated you for what I thought you did, Sirius, and I hated myself because I still loved you." Remus' voice, Sirius notes, isn't sad or angry or pitying; it isn't anything that Sirius expects. "Somehow," Remus continues wryly, "I don't think anyone else in the wizarding world faced quite the same quandary."
Sirius exhales sharply, his breath a burst of steam in the darkness. "Fuck, Moony," he says after a moment. "When the hell did you learn to be so bloody honest?"
Remus laughs, full and loud, the sound ringing through the snow-filled wood. Sirius stares at him, his thin face and the line of his neck as he tilts his head back to watch the falling snow. The laughter fades and they are both silent. The light is peculiar; it is the light of a midwinter blizzard, brighter than it should be in the complete absence of starlight or fire. He can see Remus clearly. He can see the tiny twitch at the corner of his eyes, the slight working of his jaw, the gentle rise and fall of his shoulders.
"Why are you here?" Sirius asks suddenly.
Remus looks at him. "It's Christmas." He shrugs.
"That's not--you don't have to be here."
"No, I don't."
"It's not the same."
"Not the same as what?"
Sirius wants to stamp his foot. "Why are you here?" he demands again, his voice rising. "Is this--what are you thinking? Blankets and food and wine--"
Remus rolls his eyes. "Don't be ridiculous."
"I'm not. You're not listening to me." Oh, Merlin. Now we've switched. How many times did he say that to me? Only every goddamn day. Remus raises an eyebrow but says nothing. "Fuck, Moony." Remus waits. "What the hell are we doing?"
"Standing outside in a blizzard in the middle of the night. Merlin knows why."
"I don't need your help."
"I'm going to help you whether or not you want me too." There is steel in Remus' tone that Sirius doesn't remember. He wonders fleetingly if that's the voice Remus uses with his students. "I'm going to help you, even if it means--" Remus stops, runs a hand over his face, then absently brushes snow from his hair and shoulders.
Sirius waits, but Remus doesn't go on. "Even if it means...?"
"I can't find him, Sirius."
"I can't find him. I've looked every place he knows, followed every one of Dumbledore's leads, every crazy idea, chased every suggestion of every shadow, and I can't find him."
Anxiously, Sirius protests, "It's not your--"
"It is my fault, and you don't have to pretend otherwise. If I hadn't forgotten the bloody full moon--which has only happened every single month if my entire life--you would be free. I'm looking for him, but I can't find him. I don't know where else to look."
Remus swallows hard. Sirius gapes, unable to respond. Months ago, during his first frantic flight from Hogwarts, he'd suffered an irrational fury at the wolf for ruining everything. But the anger had vanished almost immediately, because before the wolf appeared, before the rat escaped and the dementors swarmed, there were the eyes wide with realisation, the hand that pulled him to his feet, the understanding and forgiveness and Not at all, Padfoot, old friend....
Scowling, Sirius snaps, "It is not your fault."
"We didn't--I didn't--Merlin, Remus, it wasn't. It just wasn't." Shivering, Sirius hugs his arms closer to himself and sniffles. "I didn't even have a plan, I didn't think at all, I just saw the rat and--bloody hell, I was a fucking idiot. If you hadn't shown up--it wasn't your fault. Don't say that."
And he waits. He watches Remus, and he waits. The snow is collecting on Remus' hair again, and he looks rather ridiculous beneath the cap of spotty white, his face grave as he gazes into the forest, looking for--Sirius doesn't know what Remus is looking for, he doesn't know what Remus sees, but he doesn't turn his head to find out. He feels the silence surround them, the amorphous creature flowing from the shimmer of the Concealment Charm behind them, from the muffled shadows of the wood blanketed with snow. He holds his breath, and he waits.
Remus sighs. "We'll freeze if we stay out here, Padfoot." Smiling crookedly, he reaches out tentatively.
Slowly, Sirius unfolds his arms and takes Remus' hand.
Buckbeak is asleep. The corner of the cave seems curiously empty without the narrow slits of his great orange eyes glowing in the firelight. Remus cleans up the broken wine bottle with a flick of his wand and stores the remainder of the lasagne; it will give Sirius a day or two, at least, of eating something other than rats and whatever table scraps Harry manages to send. Sirius still looks like a skeleton. Slightly cleaner, a shade more rational than he had been in June, but still a skeleton with too-sharp shoulders and too-large eyes. Remus silently vows to bring food more often, and some warmer clothes.
Sirius is sitting close to the fire, his knees pulled up to his chest, staring blearily into the flames and yawning. When Remus lifts his bag to set it aside, Sirius looks up. "You're leaving?" His voice is calm but Remus can see the alarm in his eyes.
"No, of course not." Remus sits down by the fire, then reconsiders and moves back a few feet, stretching his legs before him and leaning against the wall of the cave. It is surprisingly warm, as if the stone itself has come to life in the unexpected presence of voices and flames. Sirius twists around to look at him for a second, then turns back to the fire. "You should sleep," Remus says. "You're exhausted."
"I'm fine." The reply is quiet but firm. "I don't need to sleep."
"Yes, you do. You look like you haven't slept in days." Months. Years.
"If you say so. But I'm not going anywhere. Not that there's anybody out tonight to keep watch for, anyway. It's perfectly safe." Remus starts to say more but stops. Instead, he leans over and pulls another of the blankets toward him. "Sirius." He waits for the other man to look over his shoulder. "You're nearly falling over into the fire. You need sleep."
Sirius' mouth twists into a smirk. "Is that your teacher voice, Professor Lupin?"
"That's my 'talk the stubborn fools into getting some rest' voice. Come here."
"It's...different." Still, Sirius doesn't move. His neck, Remus thinks, must feel quite strained craning over his shoulder like that.
"My voice? I should think so. We're not twenty anymore."
"It sounds..." Sirius makes a vague gesture with his right hand. "It sounds...stern. Like you could give me detention."
Remus laughs. "I could, you know."
"You didn't--before--you never sounded so certain."
Apparently embarrassed by his words, Sirius turns back to the fire and leans forward, resting his chin on his knees. Remus watches the flickering firelight play on his face, on his hair, on the grubby sleeves and shoulders of his stolen t-shirt.
"And you," Remus says gently, "haven't always sounded like you've spent a decade chewing on gravel. But that is neither here nor there at the moment. You need sleep. Come here, Sirius."
With a bark of laughter, Sirius finally turns around and crawls away from the fire. Remus hands him the folded blanket. Sirius takes it and shakes it open, then frowns, sitting back on his heels and studying Remus' shoes. His hair falls into his face, and suddenly he looks young and unsure despite the shadows under his eyes. "It's not--it's the--"
"Nightmares," Remus finishes. "I know."
Sirius gives him a look that suggests he would like to argue, but he remains silent.
"You're safe here tonight, and you need sleep."
"I know." Sirius shifts around and lies on his side, facing the fire and resting his head on Remus' lap. He pulls the blanket up to his shoulder but keeps the edge gripped in his hand, hugging himself awkwardly. "You're right," he mumbles. Remus feels the words vibrate against his thigh. "You're always right, Moony."
"Not always. Are you comfortable?"
"Mmm. It's like that song, the one your dad used to sing."
"What song is that?"
"'Come in from the wilderness...give you shelter from the storm.'"
Remus smiles. He raises his left hand and, after a moment's hesitation, begins running his fingers through Sirius' hair. "'I bargained for salvation,'" he murmurs, resting his other hand on Sirius' fist on the edge of the blanket.
"What's that?" Sirius' voice is low and slurred.
"Nothing, Pads. Go to sleep."