The building of the Lending Repository of Enchanted Objects had been officially lost in 1876. The next one hundred plus years had seen many inquiries and searches, but no results. In the end the matter was put to rest by the Ministry, who declared the Repository a protected building, and the many employees and patrons of the LREO went on much as they had, because, though the building was lost, the doors were another matter.
London held approximately twenty doors to the Repository --the most of any city since ancient Alexandria-- that stayed more or less where you left them. There were doors in back alleys or second-hand bookshops or ancient little cafes that were all quite content to stay where they were-- they were old, stolid doors, set in their ways, with solid lintels and handles polished by centuries of continuous use. Those were the doors the patrons preferred, but Sirius, along with most of the staff, used the younger doors, the sort that popped up for a week or two on the side of a building or between two hedges-- they were trickier to find, but they tended to take you where you needed to go, allowing you to bypass the perpetually busy viewing rooms.
Sirius' preferred door was of plain wooden slats painted dark blue with a clouded glass handle; he liked its audacity. That week it had taken up on one of the monster glass and steel buildings of the financial district, protected from muggle eyes by magic and its own improbability. They were old friends, and it took him without trouble from the busy street to a short, dimly lit corridor, carpeted in a faded red rug and crammed full of doors of every type.
Sirius' office, achieved by a well-polished door of blond wood, which had eaten every name plaque he had tried to attach to it, was large, airy, and pleasingly eccentric. It resembled a high-ceilinged attic, with exposed beams and brickwork and huge, lead-panelled windows that commanded a magnificent view of 19th century London. It had been raining outside, but light filtered in through grimy glass, flooding the long, narrow room. It illuminated a maze of tables, work spaces lined with items grouped roughly by type: books, jewellery, textiles, glass, musical instruments, weapons, buttons, furniture, even a tabletop covered in a four foot tall pile of metal wire birdcages, among others. To the side of the chaos, directly across from the door was a fine, old desk made of dark wood and inlaid with jet about the corners and drawers. Its top was covered in the things fine, old desks warranted: quills and ink, parchment, a ludicrously expensive but incredibly handsome fountain pen, a few serious looking books, a large chunk of amber, and a hound about the size of Sirius' fist, carved from black obsidian, with tiny diamonds set in the eyes.
He opened the top drawer with his wand, and began putting on jewellery. Spells interfered with his restoration work, but with the likely chance that a new item might be cursed, poisoned, hexed, or worse, not protecting oneself could be suicidal. As well as the Black family ring he wore on his left forefinger, he pushed a ring of engraved silver, for poison, and gold set with amber, against small hexes, on his right third and fourth fingers. A phoenix brooch, scarlet and purple enamel on gold, was pinned on his shirt under his robes to protect against fire; a lady's hair pin, diamonds and black pearls arranged in an ourobourus, attached to his shirt sleeve. Three necklaces went over his head: a lapis lazuli disc carved with an open eye on one side and a closed eye on the other, attached to a long loop of plain copper wire; a roughly welded looking steel rune hanging from a dingy white ribbon; and a necklace of fine golden chain, hung with dozens of little glass birds the size of a thumbnail and perfectly shaped glass feathers. Each piece offered a different sort of protection from subtly different sorts of magical attack, and donning it all felt like strapping on armour.
He ignored the pile of memos that had accumulated on the desk overnight and, with the Wall of Many Clocks on his left ticking away time, turned his attention to the project he had abandoned the day before: a life-sized clockwork falcon, the tick-tick-tick of its innards slightly out of sync with his clocks.
Many hours later he was pulled out of his reverie by a loud, persistent banging; it took him several seconds to realize, in a room full of things that often made loud, persistent noises, tat it was someone knocking at his door. "Er, yes?" he remained seated at his desk, eyeing the door as if it might yet decide to do something unexpected. "Come in?"
The man who pushed open the door was tall and slender with shaggy hair and big eyes that were nearly the same colour of light brown as each other, which, as Sirius was wearing a specially charmed monocle screwed into one eye, he was in an excellent position to judge. He removed it, a bit furtively, and everything returned to focus. The man, wearing muggle clothes-- a plain t-shirt and jeans-- was looking around the room dubiously, taking in the collections piled precariously on their tables, the dozens of clocks counting off seconds on one wall, the hundreds of framed paintings on the long, second wall, the doors, stacked five or six deep on the third wall and the wall of windows behind him, which, he checked, still showed a sunny view of an unfamiliar Victorian skyline.
"You're Sirius Black?" his gaze had settled out the windows, watching fashionable ladies in frilly dresses promenading beside men in sober suits.
The man's eyes flicked back to him, "Your door doesn't have a plaque."
"It eats them," Sirius deadpanned; three hours of intense concentration on mechanisms that were smaller than his fingernails had left him in an odd headspace. "Who are you?"
"Remus Lupin. Your door eats name plaques?"
"My door devours name plaques," the end of that sentence, 'among other things,' was implied. "Can I do something for you?"
"Actually, you sent me a letter."
Sirius mentally consulted the list of contacts he was waiting to hear back from, it was long, but well ordered. "No, I don't think I did."
Lupin's eyebrows went up, "Fair enough, you sent my aunt a letter, but she died a few months ago." It occurred to Sirius for the first time that Lupin had likely come to begin the process of making a donation, an interesting one, if he was responding to one of Sirius' letters.
He sat up a little straighter; up until that moment most of his attention had still been on his clockwork bird, and he suspected he hadn't made much of a first impression. Sirius focused on the man in front of him, the frown lifting from his brow, and his eyes gaining a new alertness. "Please, have a seat. You came at a bad time," it was the closest he would get to an apology. "I've been working on--" he gestured to the shining metal components on his desk "--for hours now." He glanced at his clocks and appreciated for the first time how much time had passed. "Could you tell me your aunt's name?"
Lupin wasn't smiling, but Sirius thought he looked amused, nonetheless-- certainly not showing the proper respect for his poor, dead aunt. "Higinia Rosun."
Of all the bad luck-- "My condolences."
"Yes, thank you." There was a long silence during which Sirius cursed himself for nine kinds of stupid and Lupin sat looking impassive. "You mentioned a tree?" he finally prompted.
Sirius started, rather guiltily, "What? Did I?"
"Yes. You did."
"Right, of course." He made a quick decision, "I did. Follow me." Without turning back Sirius stood and strode purposefully through the maze. They walked towards the doors piled against the far wall, wending their way through Sirius' collections.
"What's with the buttons?" Lupin asked, who, from the sound of it, had paused.
Sirius turned to face him looking, if not pleased, than at least pleasant. He explained, "I can't use many spells in this room-- there's a chance a stray finite incantatum might remove the stasis spell keeping a book or a canvas or a parchment from disintegrating, or something of the same. And, of course, most of the artefacts absorb magic."
"And the buttons?"
"They hold spells," he said, as if it should have been very obvious. Lupin looked dubious, so Sirius reached through the field that kept the buttons from spilling over, and took a round little green button made from shiny plastic. "They're organized by colour and material," he explained, and dropped the button as he spoke, "Fountain pen." Sirius caught his good pen as it soared obediently towards him, and the button fell to the bare floorboards. "It's a summoning charm, set into the button, dropping it casts the charm, which is confirmed by my verbal request. All magical residue is contained inside the button, and there's little chance of interference."
There were probably thousands of buttons, scattered on the table, organized in tin cans, stacked in colour arrangements, or just heaped in piles. If the table had been anywhere else it would have looked the result of a madman, a tailor with a compulsive disorder, as it was, among Sirius' things it was practically commonplace, nothing his visitors usually focused on. Usually they went for the swords, or his clocks, or the windows-- the buttons tended to get overlooked. "That's actually rather brilliant," it didn't sound like a compliment.
"It's practical," Sirius shrugged, and continued on to the doors.
The door he wanted was plain, unfinished wood, with a little bronze plaque that read 'Storage Space 2K-17,' to reach it he had to shift several other doors, laying them down in a space between tables. Carefully, he carried it towards the windows and fit it into an empty frame set in a nook created by the doors, the wall, and the windows. The frame expanded to accommodate the storage room door and then contracted, so it fit snugly in its hinges. "Right," Sirius said, and turned the handle. Though there had been nothing but empty wall behind the frame, the open door showed a room lined with shelves, the shelves filled neatly with labelled boxes.
"Do all of your doors lead somewhere?"
"Some of them," he stepped inside and began scanning boxes, reading their labels. "I can only put in one storage room request at a time, so they end up being all over-- this place is actually somewhere in South London, in a warehouse owned by the Ministry. Most people Floo or apparate, but it's hell on some of the objects."
"So you made a door?" his voice was heavy, dry.
"Oh, no. It only works on doors that have an attachment to where they were-- doors that were new when they were put in, or spent longer there than anywhere else, and sometimes it still doesn't work. You can come in," he added, when he turned around and saw Lupin was still in his office, on the other side of the frame. "Just don't shut the door."
Lupin paused in the act of crossing the threshold, "What would happen?"
Sirius smiled, his first since meeting the man, "We'd have to apparate back to the Repository and do this over again. From this side the door just leads into a corridor." He found the box he was looking for on a top shelf; it was tall, made of plain wood and labelled 'The May Tree: E-274/M.' Sirius spoke aloud its call number, and the box slid forward off its shelf and floated gently to the floor. He gestured for Lupin to take one side, and together they manoeuvred it through the door, back through the maze and onto the empty table between Sirius' desk and the wall of clocks.
Sirius took a blue glass button from his pocket, selecting it from a handful of others, and dropped it on the crate, which folded open and away, its sides forming a neat pile, the button on top. Revealed was a tree planted in a wide, shallow pot of enamelled clay. It was a perfect miniature, a fully mature cherry tree no taller than Sirius' arm, elbow to fingertip; it was made of metal. At first glance it looked like a statue or a sculpture, but on close inspection you was that it was seamless, that its bark was rough, the leaves thin to the point of transparency, the blossoms even thinner and too fine to be crafted by hand or spell. It was a live, growing, metal tree. "Incredible," Lupin said, and Sirius was gratified by the awe in his voice. He reached out his hand to touch it, then withdrew, "What's it made of?"
"Platinum, mostly, with some gold in the trunk. And copper, to get the colour."
Lupin ran a blunt fingertip along a branch, "It's warm."
"That's the greenhouse spell on the crate-- it needs to be kept warm."
"Light, water?" he questioned.
He shook his head, "Just heat, as far as I can tell."
"That makes a certain kind of sense," he was running his fingers over the curve of the trunk and Sirius was tracking his progress with his eyes. "Metal's shaped through heat." He looked up, and Sirius met his eyes, "I don't understand, though, what this has to do with me, or my aunt."
"Goblins," Sirius said, and then backtracked. "This particular piece was bought with the understanding that it was part of a set."
"The May Tree," Lupin agreed. "One of twelve?"
"Precisely. I've tracked down some of the others-- a few are owned privately: January, March, and April. The Repository has February, May, August, and December, and September is at Hogwarts. November's rumoured to be lost-- last seen more than two hundred years ago." He paused, catching up with himself.
"That leaves June, July, and October," Lupin said.
"Exactly. June's in Asia, somewhere-- I've seen a photograph of it-- and July's at Gringotts' sister in New York City, in one of their abandoned vaults. I've been in negotiations, but," he shrugged.
"And then there was one."
"October, yes. I spoke with the goblins months back, asking if they remembered anything of the kind."
"The Repository's on that good of terms with the goblins?"
"I took the May Tree with me; we bartered. The trees aren't goblin wrought, so through they would have liked to keep it they had no claim. I let them hold it for a week to run tests and take samples, and in exchange they told me that they had record of something similar, removed from the Rosun family vault by Ansis Rosun in 1946."
Sirius smiled, "It took me slightly longer to figure out who he was, but yes: Ansis Panteno Rosun, born 24 July 1912, died 19 December, 1946-- three days after removing the October Tree from Gringotts. When his wife died, ten years later, everything was left to the elder of two sisters: Higinia Rosun, who never married and had no children. And when she died...?" he trailed off, questioningly.
"She left everything to me. They couldn't stand each other, my aunt and mum."
"Which means, since the October Tree hasn't been seen since 1946, it has passed into your possession."
"How did he die?"
"My grandfather, you said he died three days after removing the October Tree from Gringotts-- how did he die?"
Sirius, who knew not only the how, but also the when, where, and why for the death of every ancestor since the Middle Ages, found Lupin's lack of knowledge peculiar and oddly charming. "Poison."
Lupin was wearing such a troubled expression that for some daft reason Sirius blurted out, "Loads of my ancestors have been poisoned."
Lupin managed to both raise his eyebrows and frown at the same time. His eyes narrowed slightly, "Sirius Black of the Blacks?"
He smiled, just a little, but enough that the low bubble of attraction Sirius had been feeling began to fizz erratically in his chest and stomach. "I imagine lots of your ancestors have been poisoned."
"Fifteen," Sirius replied, mock serious, "though only three have been poisoned to death."
"Someone wasn't trying hard enough," Lupin replied, eyes glinting.
He agreed, "Some very shoddy assassin work." They both laughed, grinning at each other, and Sirius actually had to shake his head to regain his balance. "Er, the tree."
"Right, no, I'm sorry, this is the first I've ever heard of it. I wouldn't even know where to start looking-- the Rosun Estate is quite large and I'm afraid my aunt never threw anything out. I've only just started going through things."
On a whim, Sirius volunteered, "I could help. I mean, we have spells for this sort of thing-- sorting, and finding hidden spaces. And, I mean, if its really so cluttered, the LREO's always accepting donations."
Lupin looked sceptical, "You'd really want my aunt's ever-full flower vases?"
"Well, no, not me personally," he tried on a smile, "but vases are very popular among patrons."
He still looked reluctant, "You don't have responsibilities here?"
Sirius shrugged, "If you don't want my help...."
A sudden smile split Lupin's face, "Oh, no, I just don't want you to say I talked you into it. I'm not sure you understand what you're getting yourself into."
Sirius next words had the ring of Famous Last Words to them, "How bad can it be?"
Well after the hour of his usual lunch break Sirius took a door directly to a cafe and found that he was expected. With a certain amount of resignation he lowered himself into the seat opposite his brother and regarded him silently. He work muggle clothes: a t-shirt that had seen better days and finely tailored trousers, and looked as if he had been waiting a long while; napkins, paper, empty cups, plates holding half-eaten snacks, and a full ash tray littered the tabletop.
"Been here long?" he inquired, lightly.
"Long enough," Regulus replied, gravely tapping out a cigarette from the blue paper package that had rested on the table. He offered it to Sirius, who lit it with a flame conjured by rubbing runes inked on his thumb and forefinger together. He preformed the same service for his brother, and in perfect synchronicity they lifted the cigarettes to their mouths, inhaled, and breathed out.
"How's..." he searched for the name-- purple something-- "Violet?"
"Right. How's Indigo?" Regulus had the uncanny ability of picking from a crowd the woman who would hate him the most and slowly, over the course of months, wearing them down. When they were thoroughly in love with him he dumped them, bored, to start the process over again.
"Gone. Long gone. It's Natasha, now." Invariably these women had artsy names and were built along the lines of a praying mantis: tall, thin, and prone to biting off heads.
"Yeah, going well, is it?" The waitress came over, a girl with blue hair and wobbly heels, and Sirius ordered a coffee and sandwiches.
"Splendid," Regulus replied, dryly. "Must I inquire after your swains or can we talk about why I have sat here three hours waiting on you?"
"Pedantic bastard," Sirius flicked ash onto an empty saucer. "If it wasn't for your own bloody sense of drama you would have made an appointment like a regular person and we'd be sitting in my office."
Regulus was cool, "I need an appointment to see my brother?"
"No, obviously stalking me works out much better." They both took several long, calming drags from their cigarettes, glowering at each other.
"You know why I'm here."
Sirius stubbed his cigarette out and declined another. The waitress came, delivering a coffee in a mug slightly less blue than her hair and a plate of sandwiches, and went. Sirius sighed, adding several sugars to his coffee and the barest amount of cream; he cradled the cup in both hands. "Mum's birthday."
"Mother's birthday," Regulus confirmed.
"Circe's tits," Sirius swore and took a large, scalding swallow of coffee.
"Two weeks," Regulus said sternly, "at grandmother's estate. You will be there, you will bring a gift, and you will be pleasant."
Sirius set his coffee down and began picking apart a sandwich, "Two out of three?"
Purposefully obtuse, Regulus replied, "I'm afraid you have to bring her a present."
He chewed a bit of brown bread, "Unfair, Regs."
His brother seemed to deflate, "You haven't spent the last three weeks with grandmother."
"S'your own fault," Sirius was unsympathetic. "If you weren't so nice to her she'd leave you alone." Their mother's mother, Irma Black nee Crabbe, had been a great beauty in her youth and unfortunately, as her chestnut curls faded and her violet eyes had grown creases in their corners, her small mindedness had grown. The only member of the family who even made an effort, including their grandfather, Pollux, was Regulus, who was fond of listing the contents of their grandparents Gringotts vault to Sirius when their grandmother's back was turned.
"The town house, the fifteenth century Pensieve, the gold Morai clock, the emerald Flight sparrows..." Regulus listed these in the manner of one who had taken it up as a personal mantra.
"So long as granddad dies first-- he'd leave it all to mum, and Merlin knows how long she'll live."
"Probably make it to a hundred, just to spite us," Regulus agreed, leaning back in his chair, "first Black in three centuries."
"What are you getting her?" Sirius asked, reassembling his sandwich and shoving half of it into his mouth.
"I've organized the party, isn't that enough?" He relented, "A violin, it plays itself. Actually, I'd like you to have a look at it, just in case."
"Ungrateful sod," he ate the other half of his sandwich, swallowing with the aid of his coffee.
"It isn't like you'll have any trouble-- she'd be delighted with half the things in that barn of yours."
"Which half, though?" Sirius asked.
"You know her better than anyone." Regulus ran a long, pale finger along the rim of his teacup. "If you can't pick something out what hope do the rest of us have?"
Sirius felt more than done for the day, so he finished his meal and, in a fit of magnanimity, paid for his brother's food as well. They parted on the street, Regulus in pursuit of the reluctant Natasha and Sirius for home. His flat wasn't far from the cafe, and he chose to walk the distance between. It was September, and the cool promise of autumn was in the air, brisk and energizing. His flat was in the city, and cost more than any two bedroom with dodgy hot water and more lead than was really recommended lurking about, should, but he liked it too much, and was far too lazy in his scant free time to consider looking for another.
The soft ticking of his clocks greeted him as he unlocked his door and stepped inside. He had 156 timepieces, most were kept in his office, but he had about a dozen on the walls at home. The sound of them all was familiar and deeply comforting. It was the knowledge that they were all exactly right that meant so much to him. Not just the time they gave, though that was correct to the second, but that all of them had to work perfectly, that no a gear was damaged or a cog could be out of place to produce the perfect, rhythmic tick that he could hear; pendulums and clockwork and ever-travelling hands.
The hour struck, and a small symphony played around him: chimes and bells and hammers hitting little disks of polished metal. It was glorious, and it was spoiled by the crack of an elf's apparition. He turned on Kreacher, scowling.
When the sound faded the elf spoke, "Mistress requests Master Sirius for dinner."
Sirius blinked at it, his own bad mood threatening to dissolve. "Mother requests I attend dinner with her, not that she eat me for dinner, surely," he corrected. "I'm assuming, of course."
"Master will joke," Kreacher picked at his nails, frowning at the dirty floor. Sirius became aware of how filthy his flat was, and how uncomfortable it was making the house elf; he grinned. "But Mistress insists on his presence."
"No. I won't go."
The elf made a low croaking noise of disapproval, "Mistress said you might decline. She said that she insists and," he spoke in a rush, "and that she has information on the one that was lost."
The trees had taken up too much of his attention in the past months for him to mistake the meaning of the message. "Tell her I'll be there," Sirius said, and went to change clothes.
Six Months Previously--
It was Tuesday, and Tuesdays meant tea with his mother at Grimmauld Place. The parlour had not changed in more than twenty years: and airy room with windows facing the back garden, sand coloured wood floor covered by the same, slightly worn, Persian rug, elegant chairs of rosewood and emerald silk, wide enough to accommodate the fashionable skirts of a different era, a spindly little rosewood table set with fine bone china and platters of pastries and sandwiches Sirius had never bothered learning the names for. The room smelt of beeswax polish, old parchment, and his mother's perfume: a familiar and pleasant combination of flowery and astringent.
Walburga herself was standing at the far end of the room, examining a little cloth bound book she had taken from one of the shelves there. His mother wore her black and steel coloured hair loose except for the silver and garnet pins that held it back from her face, it tumbled in loose curls onto the back of here royal blue robes. She looked poised and refined, as ever, and when she set her book down and turned to him he could see amusement in her ghost-grey eyes.
"Did you know," she began, her usual way of greeting him, "that my name has been put forward for the Head of the Ladies' Charitable Society?"
"It's a great honour," Sirius replied, straight-faced.
"Hmmm," she hummed a laugh. "It's a nuisance, but if I withdraw they terminate my membership, and their Thursday night meetings are the only thing saving me from your grandmother." Sirius had never heard Walburga refer to her mother as anything other than 'your grandmother.' Irma Black hosted weekly Thursday night parties at her townhouse, Walburga's excuse for never attending were her Society meetings, held on the same night.
"It doesn't mean you'll be selected. Who else is running?"
Walburga's silk skirts rustled as she walked the short distance across the room and sat delicately in a chair. She took a moment to arrange the fabric around her, then spoke, "Meracri Malfoy-- I couldn't bear to lose." She gave a delicate shrug, "It is only for a year, I suppose I could suffer through."
Sirius' grin was crooked, "Anything to avoid grandmother."
She smiled back at him, "Exactly so. Will you pour?" she gestured to the table.
When her tea was in hand she demanded, "Tell me about work."
He knew, of his week's acquisitions, which she would like best, "A living tree, made of metal, was donated. It's a miniature-- a fully mature cherry tree half a metre tall, made of gold and platinum. I'm told it's part of a collection that was broken up."
"Fascinating," his mother was leaning forward. "It's metal all the way through? And the roots?"
"Yes, the bark is layered, gold on top of platinum, and vice versa, very finely, and the leaves are impossibly thin." He took a folded handkerchief from his pocket and showed her the contents, the results of yesterday's pruning: twigs of metal, thin and flexible, made of gold but darkly veined.
Walburga handled them gently, holding each up to the light. "Extraordinary," she pronounced. "You say it's part of a collection?"
"According to the estate. I've contacted a few people, but...." he trailed off, shrugging.
"You might consult the goblins," his mother suggested.
"It tests like an enchantment-- it isn't goblin wrought."
"The goblins value treasure above most else, they might have a record of something as unusual as your tree, or something like it."
The door to the parlour opened before Sirius could respond. "Oh," his father said, looking between them. Orion was of an age with his wife, handsome but stern, with grey eyes that were nearly black and black hair that was nearly grey. "Is it Tuesday?” Orion was a foremost mind in the field of Arithmancy, and though he often appeared vague, it was his father that Sirius had feared most as a child when his mischief was exposed, "Of course it is," he answered himself, and returned to the corridor, closing the door behind him.
"I'll speak to them tomorrow," Sirius said, as if they had not been interrupted.
"Take the tree, if you can. And," she paused, but then eased the silver and garnet pins out of her hair and handed them to him, "give them these, they're goblin wrought."
"A good faith gift," she said firmly. "If you don't wish to give them away then offer to pay for them. I bought them from a wizarding shop, and the goblins won't consider that legal." Sirius had long ceased wondering where his mother had learned all she knew-- probably there was a class in omniscience that he had missed, more likely they only taught it to women. He slipped the pins into his trouser pocket and changed the subject.
The dining room was narrow and, by some trick of magical architecture, longer than the house. It's windows, facing each other, looked out on the street at one end and Walburga's meticulously maintained garden on the other. The table and sixteen chairs were held together not by nail or glue or magic, but had been carved from massive blocks of wood. It was, though, the chandelier that held the eye: a construction of silver, crystal, and candle that was dazzling to look at.
All of which was old hat to Sirius; he was far more interested in the couple that sat on his mother's right. The man looked about sixty, his hair might once have been red, but had faded to a rusty grey, it fell in waves to his pointed chin, parted down the centre to accentuate his prow-like nose and high forehead, jutting out so that his dark eyes always seemed to be in shadow. The woman was perhaps twenty years younger than her partner, though in wizards it could be hard to tell. Her hair was smoky brown, pulled back and secured by several diamond pins its violent curls looked like a lion's mane. Here eyes reinforced the image: they were tawny gold with frivolously long lashes. She was elegant in bronze silk, her husband in charcoal.
His mother was as usual: an ice queen in pale blue, her long braid bound in a coronet around her head, silver and opals at her throat and glinting on her fingers. "Sirius," she greeted, smiling. He felt dapper in robes of very darkest purple, black unless they were under the right light, as he had known he would be, and apparently she agreed. "Do you know the Evandos?"
"I haven't had the pleasure," Sirius said, standing behind the chair across from his mother. He inclined his head at the couple, choosing to use his manners.
His mother made introductions, "This is Frantisek and his wife Tamar, Madam Tamar, Professor Evando, this is my eldest son, Sirius." They exchanged greetings, scrupulously polite, and Sirius took his seat. The head of the table was empty, but before he could comment Walburga spoke, "You'll excuse Orion, of course, but the Ministry is keeping him close, at the moment."
"Your husband is a brilliant man," Professor Evando's accent was European, Austrian, at a guess.
Madam Tamar's voice was low and warm, her accent muted Balkan, "I admired his article in Arithamancer's Quarterly."
They talked inanities for several minutes, until Regulus arrived with a spindly brunette, nearly taller than he was with glacial blue eyes and robes an extremely saturated shade of dark pink, and introductions had to be made. Sirius and Professor Evando stood until the couple took their seats to the left of Sirius, Natasha closest. He was saved forcing pleasantries by the arrival of the soup course in front of them.
"You have built a favourable reputation," Evando told him, when at last coffee and silver trays of delicate sweet things were served. "All I have spoken to regard you highly."
Sirius wanted to lean across the table and scream at the man to tell him all he knew of the lost November tree, but quite apart from scaring the couple off, he knew his mother would hex him before he even got the words out and calmly continue the interview herself. "That's very kind of you."
"Merely accurate," the Professor said. "I had to understand your intent, of course, when I heard you were seeking out the lost tree."
"Why was it necessary?" Regulus asked, blunt. "From what I understand they are just trees." He shrugged, "Pretty to look at, but not useful in any way."
Natasha had passed most of the meal silently, looking cool and withdrawn, but she spoke then, surprising everyone, "Beauty is always useful."
Regulus gave her a tiny salute, just a touch of his first and second fingers to his brow, as if to say touché.
"True words, Ms. Hauk," Evando smiled thinly. "The trees are not merely beautiful, they are ancient, and they have been held by wizards since they were created," he spoke this last as if it were important, though he didn't elaborate.
Regulus and Natasha looked bemused, so Sirius explained, "Magic bleeds. Whenever you cast a spell residual magic is left in the area, which can cause problems, if too much builds up. Luckily, magic is also greedy, magical objects most of all-- they absorb most of the ambient magic left lying around without too many wizards noticing. It can be a problem, if the objects absorbs too much, especially if it isn't of a sort that agrees with its nature. Objects made of magic, though, can absorb all they like and remain unaffected, unlike things made with magic, or have simply had magic used on them.
"The trees are such objects-- each hold an enormous reservoir of power, which, with the right spells, can be tapped into and used."
"So you want them for their power?"
Sirius shook his head, "Only someone very stupid or very desperate would use the tree's power. It would be like--" he searched for the appropriate metaphor "--seducing a Veela."
Madam Tamar nodded her great, curly head, her mouth lifting in a wry smile, "Good for a time, but quickly very dangerous."
"But they could be used," his brother insisted.
"September is the last known to be used, back in Grindelwald's time," Walburga spoke. "The witch used herself as a conduit, after securing her family's safety, the crater is still included in many magical tours of Europe. They never found the witch, not even pieces, though the tree was quite intact."
Tamar was nodding again, "She was very brave. She destroyed many of Grindelwald's best soldiers that night. Ermenilda's Triumph, it's referred as, after the witch. It is said her sacrifice helped end the war; there is much literature written about her."
Evando spoke, as if to make sure all the facts were exactly right, "Grindelwald himself found the tree at the bottom of the crater, and took it with him, hoping to discover its use. It is that, many say, that prompted Dumbledore to agree to a duel, though Grindelwald had been demanding one for years. In any case," Evando shrugged, "Dumbledore won, taking the September tree with him. It resides in Hogwarts to this day, where I imagine it had more than replenished its magical stores."
All around the table expressions were sufficiently grave.
Sirius spoke, "I beg your pardon, but what do you know about the lost tree?"
Tamar leaned forward, and all eyes went to her. "I deal in books. Perhaps a year ago I received a grimoire of little importance in a collection of other books. Inspecting it I found a photograph pressed between its pages. It was of a smiling woman in an elegant room, with a magnificent potted tree on a table to the side of her. I guessed at what it might be, but the trees are not in my expertise, so I went to my husband."
He took over the story, "I was sure it was one of the Autumn Trees-- but which one? September, to my knowledge, had never left Hogwarts, and an inquiry at the school confirmed the fact. I performed the dating spells myself, though, and the photograph came back as being taken in the winter of 1957, after Grindelwald's defeat."
"So September was out," Regulus commented.
"Exactly. I hadn't hoped that it was the lost tree, November, so I pursued October. Auction records proved that it had been sold at the turn of the century, and certainly remained in England. At this point, I had begun to hope, because Tamar had tracked the providence of the grimoire back to Oranie Moreau."
Madam Tamar picked the story back up, "She was a seer of good reputation."
"And a treasure hunter," Sirius added, a bit scornfully.
"Yes, it is said she had talent for finding lost things, including treasure." Tamar did not sound altogether pleased, and Sirius realised she, like him, would have reason to dislike treasure hunters, in her line of work. "By process of deduction, we guessed that the photograph was taken at her chateau, in the French Alps-- there were mountains pictured in the window behind her. When Oranie Moreau died in 1963 the house and its contents were left to a nephew-- Moreau herself never married, and the rest of her considerable estate was left to various other family and friends."
"What was the nephew's name?" Walburga asked.
Sirius felt as if a hot poker had been shoved into his stomach and twisted. "Lupin?" he whispered.
"The name is significant to you?" Evando asked. "I tracked Lupin, but he refused to speak with me. It seems he hasn't left his aunt's chateau in many years, all of his correspondence is managed through his son, Remus."
Sirius shook his head, pushing the mystery aside, "It isn't important." The table was silent for a moment. Something occurred to Sirius, "Did you bring the picture? May I see it?"
Evando produced the picture from a pocket and passed it across the table to Sirius. It was smallish, showing a high-ceilinged room, lightly furnished, and a woman sitting beside a high table, which held the tree. The woman was about fifty, brown-haired and blue-eyed, wearing shimmery pale green robes and beaming; occasionally she would cross or re-cross her legs, or adjust the material of her skirt. The tree was magnificent, its leaves every shade of red, orange, and yellow metal can produce, its bark silvery; he judged it to be a maple. He began to pat down his robes before realizing he had neither his monocle nor his jeweller’s loupe. "May I?" he asked, indicating his wand.
"Of course," Tamar agreed, and Sirius magnified the image.
"Stunning," he couldn't seem to get his head to stop shaking. "It's the November, certainly. I'm as sure as I can be without having it in front of me." He was still shaking his head from side to side, "Do you mind if I make a copy?" They didn't, so Sirius did so with a silent spell, and tucked it away, handing the original back across the table.
Less than an hour later Sirius was back in his own flat, his beautiful robes in a heap on the floor. He was sitting in a chair listening to his clocks, the light from the street coming in through the uncurtained windows and illuminating the copied photograph he held. The methodical ticking calmed his mind, allowing him to think through the day's events.
Remus Lupin was connected to two of the Autumnal trees. That was... suspicious. There were perhaps half a dozen people in the world with ties to more than one of the trees, and Sirius himself was one of them. Was it possible that Lupin had never been to the mountain chateau? Was the November even there, still? More than thirty years had passed since Oranie Moreau had posed with a lost treasure in her parlour. Had the tree even been among those things passed on to Donatien Lupin? Perhaps the tree had moved on to a different relative, or was it merely lost, lost again, after being found and hidden?
There was an idea-- had Moreau hid it, before her death? Perhaps-- but there his conjecture stalled. There were very few reasons to hide something as valuable as the November tree, and far more to report the find in the proper way.
He dropped the picture on his coffee table in favour of running his hands through his hair and tugging, sharply, as if he might pull the answer out with his hair. Sixteen clocks struck the half hour and Sirius sagged back into his armchair. He had an automaton at work to reassemble, a gift for his mother's birthday to choose, and a pile of mysteries to think over. He did the sensible thing and went to bed.
Four days later Sirius Flooed into the kitchen at Rosalba, the rambling old country manor that Remus had inherited from his aunt. A hundred years ago it had been a place to admire, full of intimate rooms and comfortable niches to admire it from, but in the last century wings had been closed and rooms left to gather dust, until the only spaces left inhabitable were Higinia Rosun's personal rooms-- a bed, bath, and solarium --and the kitchen, manned by a solitary house elf.
"This is Merrie," Remus introduced them. "She refuses to leave and I haven't the heart to turn her out, so she's been helping."
"Very useful species, house elves," Sirius said, and watched Merrie beam, as if 'useful' was the highest compliment she could receive. He had chosen his oldest, softest pair of jeans and a faded black t-shirt for cleaning duty, and he tucked his hands into his pockets. "Should we start?" he asked, before the silence between them could descend any further into awkward.
"Right. Yes, well. I've already been through some of the more, er, accessible rooms, and so far no tree, obviously. I thought we'd try the library? I don't like the look of some of the books in there, and I thought, since you're already here, you might...?"
"I'll buy anything interesting," Sirius said, on solid footing at last. "The rest of it you can sell or donate to the Repository, depending on what its worth. Or, if it's so salacious, the Ministry will pay you for turning in any truly dark arts type books. Do you think you'd like to keep the house, or are you looking to sell everything off, or?"
Remus was shaking his head, "I don't even know if I want to stay in England, to be honest. I've spent half my life in France-- my family's there." He scrubbed his hands over his face, "I want to know what's here. I want to know about my mother's family. Further than that," he shrugged, "I suppose I'll figure something out."
"Good enough." Sirius held an arm out, "Lead the way."
The library proved to be dark, damp, and crowded. It was as if the contents of entire rooms had migrated there, shoving each other out of the way until it was impossible to take an unobstructed step.
"I've seen worse," Sirius pronounced upon entering and immediately squashing a skein of yarn under his boot. "Not much worse, mind, but it at least sounds like the anti-vermin wards are still alive. I have a very difficult time with rats." He took out his wand and cast a nonverbal spell that lit all the sconces in steady witch-light. "That should happen automatically, but I suppose if they was inactive long enough the charms might have collapsed on themselves, especially if there are grimoires in here-- they'll absorb any residual magic just laying about." Sirius began to suspect that he was babbling, and very consciously shut up.
"Some of this can't be saved," Lupin said, his own wand out.
"Banish it," Sirius suggested, practically. "No use letting it take up more space."
"I'm being sentimental, aren't I?" Lupin half-smiled. "Over a pile of junk I'd never even seen before a month ago." He shook his head and began moving through the clutter, opening up a trail.
Sirius just shoved things out of his way, leaving the decision of what to banish to Lupin, and went for the bookshelves. Immediately, he ran into a problem.
"Not all of these have had waterproofing," he called back, looking at a set of encyclopaedias that seemed to have expanded, filling any gaps that had been left between them and the shelf. "I can fix them, just let me find the grimoires first. I don't want them sucking up the better half of my spells."
"Is that a problem?" Remus looked up from a stool missing two of its three legs.
"Not usually, it only really matters in finicky work."
"Like a spell that affects some of the books, but not others."
He nodded, skimming his eyes over the shelves, "Usually there's warding on this type of thing, but," he shrugged, "we might as well be thorough."
He found the spell books in the dampest, dingiest corner. Lupin had followed him, and observed, "They absorbed the magic here, first."
"A while ago," Sirius agreed. He tapped the shelf once with his wand to suck some of the moisture out, and twice to remove some of the grime, then ran his wand along the row of spines. "Odd," he frowned. He took one of the books down, opened it vaguely to its centre, and held his wand to the join of the pages, repeating his nonverbal spell. For good measure he spoke it aloud, to the same puzzling result.
"What?" Lupin asked, a little sharply.
"There's hardly anything here," Sirius shook his head. "A book this old, in a house like this, I should barely be able to touch it, but the only magic I'm sensing is what's left from the binding."
"But it definitely wore down the wards?"
"The tree!" he felt criminally dense. "Of course, the books wouldn't have stood a chance. It's here then, for sure, or it was. But how long ago--" A warm hand descended on his shoulder, cutting off his diatribe.
"Slow down," Lupin said, eyebrows quirked. "Explain."
Ignoring the nervous fluttering in his stomach-- Lupin removed his hand but Sirius could still feel the warmth of it, tingling down his entire arm-- and explained the tree's storage capacities, Ermenilda's Triumph, and the pull October would have on any unanchored magic in its vicinity. "It won't destroy existing spells," Sirius ended, "but once the grimoires wore down their own wards, the October tree was able to siphon their magical stores away without much trouble."
"So it is here."
"Somewhere. In this huge, old house. Full of a few centuries of rubbish."
"...Yes," Sirius said, rather less enthusiastically. He looked around at the library, larger than his London flat. "Yes, I'll need..." he stalled.
"Some sort of sensor?" Lupin suggested. "To measure the residual magic left in the house?"
"Ye-es," he said, again, drawing it out. And then again, "Yes. I know, actually, someone who could--" he stopped, and made an effort at making sense. "I mean, there's a friend of mine, who specializes in this sort of thing-- custom spells and things. I could ask...?"
"It sounds as if," Lupin was looking about the room, visibly restless, "this tree is something that needs to be taken care of, regardless of whatever other reasons you or I have for finding it."
Sirius blinked. "That's a yes, then?" he ventured.
"Yes," Remus smiled.
"So tell me about this Lupin," Regulus drawled the next day. They were in Sirius' office, with Regulus' gift to their mother in a case on the desk between them.
"What do you mean?" he avoided looking at his brother, and sketched an eye of Horus on a scrap of paper.
Regulus reached across the desk and snatched the paper away, "I mean," he eyed it dispassionately, "you went to see him yesterday, yes?"
"Don't patronize me, little brother," Sirius scowled.
He shrugged, and let the paper drop to the floor; Sirius clenched his jaw. "I only wanted to know what he's like. I mean-- you're seeing him again Wednesday. Is it inconceivable that I wouldn't like to know about the people my brother spends his time with?"
Regulus laughed, and reached for the obsidian hound sitting guard on the desk. Sirius batted his hand away, "It bites."
Regulus raised an eyebrow, but withdrew his hand.
"He's nice," Sirius admitted, almost against his will.
He was visibly thrown for a second. "Lupin?"
Sirius nodded, "Unassuming, agreeable."
"But?" his brother prompted, accurately reading Sirius' expression.
"But," Sirius leaned back into his chair. "I think he's hiding something."
Both of Regulus' eyebrows went up, "You've known the man less than a week-- do you expect him to tell you everything?"
Sirius wondered when his brother had become his therapist; he resisted the urge to throw something. "Of course not. I just--" he hesitated, trying to find the right words. "I feel like there's something he doesn't want me to know. It's like he's hiding. Like," he shook his head, "like he's doing his best to-- to pretend at something. To pretend to be something." Sirius leaned his chair further back and narrowly escaped a braining when it tipped over. "Fuck off," he snarled, when Regulus laughed. Instead of sitting back down he began to pace along the wall of portraits, opposite his desk.
"Why don't you ask him," Regulus suggested.
"Ask him if he's hiding something," he continued, as if it were a perfectly reasonable course of action.
"Are you-- I can't just--" he gestured uselessly. "What sort of advice it is that?"
"The highly sensible kind. While you're at it, ask him what he's hiding, as well."
"Well," Regulus drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. "Worse case: he shouts at you, and you know he's hiding something. Best case: he tells you." Obviously his brother's worldview was faulty.
"I like," Sirius pointed out dryly, "that he mightn't be hiding anything at all was ruled out."
Regulus shrugged, "I trust your instincts." And on that baffling note, he took his leave.
The shop front window bore the legend, in gold paint outlined in black: Bespoke Spells, etc. Proprietor: L. Potter. A bell chimed when he pushed the door opened, but the front of the shop was empty. With the ease of familiarity, Sirius went around the counter and into the back room. "Oi, Evans," he called, when he found her, eyes closed, at her desk.
"It's been Potter for five years now, Black," she opened her eyes, regarding him wearily. "You were at the wedding, for Merlin's sake. What do you want?"
Mostly Lily did what her sign said: tailor made spells for those who needed them and didn't have the time or talent to do it for themselves, but her real money came from the Ministry contracts. With those she pursued her passion-- marrying muggle technology to magic. Her time was precious.
"I need a favour."
"A real favour, or a 'Really, Evans, I owe you one,' type of favour?"
"A real one. Anything you want."
She made a face, "You know what I want."
Sirius winced, and wished he wasn't in the habit of sharing about new acquisitions over dinner with friends. "Alright, yes," he shook his head. "You can have it."
"I'm busy tomorrow." She was unwavering. "Alright, tomorrow." In an attempt to regain control Sirius put on a stern expression, "But I expect my spell when I come by."
Lily's smile was wide and extremely smug, "Agreed, Black. What do you need?"
It was ready the next morning, Wednesday, and, very reluctantly, Sirius packed up Lily's payment into a crate not dissimilar from what he stored the May Tree in, though smaller.
"On automaton falcon," he said, upon delivery. "I was going to give that to my mother for her birthday, I hope you know."
"I'll consider it a double victory, then. Your mother is a bitch."
"You've never met my mother," he pointed out, though he didn't completely disagree.
"No," she shrugged, "but I've seen her. Now," she switched subjects, holding up a bronze and glass compass. "Do you want this, or not?" He snatched it from her. It was heavy, with a featureless dial and a thin needle spinning at its centre. "It points to the strongest magical pole."
Sirius studied it, waiting for the needle to settle, "It's pointing... southwest?"
"We're not far from the Ministry. The range can be adjusted. I imagine it would be an interesting exercise, testing its limits, but..." she spread her hands in a helpless type of gesture, "Fair payment, and all that."
"Ta, Evans," he thanked her, and left.
He found Regulus waiting on him in his office. "Right," he set the compass on the desk, covering it with his coat, "you're not stalking me. It's getting creepy, Regs."
"Shut it, Sirius." His brother stretched in his chair, giving the impression he had been waiting for a while and considered it far too long. "I'm staying with you today."
"What? No, you can't invite yourself along, just because you feel like it."
"Of course I can," Regulus eyed him lazily, like a very big, very monochromatic cat. "I'm hiding from grandmother. You're, I don't know, fraternally obligated, or something."
"I don't-- I have work."
"You're meeting Remus Lupin again today. I'm coming with you," his brother said, baldly, ignoring him. "I should think you'd be glad for the company."
Sirius calmed himself enough to take a second and think through Regulus' often snarled and labyrinthine logic. He recalled their conversation of the day before, and the way it had ended, "You think you're protecting me?"
"Don't be ridiculous." Regulus studied his nails, "Grandmother's impossible, Mother's ambivalent, and I broke Natasha's heart last night, the poor dear."
"You can't tell me you don't have another vapid insect woman lined up."
"Cosette is not vapid." Regulus smiled, "Though she is perhaps a bit entomic."
Sirius leered, "I'm sure you admire her carapace very much."
"Cosette's comely carapace." His brother smirked, "Quite."
"So why aren't you off with the insect doing whatever it is that makes them like you so much?"
"Oh, Cosette hates me," he said, sounding pleased by the fact. "It's a very tricky stage, this first bit, getting them to want to spend time with me."
"So, I'm staying well clear of her."
Regulus was beginning to look peeved, "And, it's boring. And you aren't," he added, before Sirius could ask. "You never are-- boredom crosses the street when it sees you coming. It, well," he waved a hand, "you get the idea."
"Yes, perfectly. You want to spy on me."
"That's entirely dependent on whether or not you have something interesting to hide."
Sirius' insides twisted themselves into interesting new shapes. He could kick his brother out of his office and then suffer the exhaustive investigation Regulus would surely launch and undoubtedly discover one of the myriad of things Sirius was keeping from his family. Or, he could invite Regulus along, keep him occupied, and hope he got bored and buggered off. He smiled brightly, and his day picked up immediately as his brother began to look uneasy.
"I have absolutely nothing to hide, Regs. Why don't you come with me to Rosalba? I would certainly be glad of the company."
"Of course, Sirius," Regulus' expression relaxed into something both benevolent and satisfied: the house cat resemblance had never been so striking. "I'd be delighted."
Sirius kept the introductions brief and, with his new purpose in life making sure Lupin and Regulus interacted as little as possible, pulled Lily's compass sensor out of his coat pocket and went straight to work, talking all the while. "Clever bit of magic this, pity about the cost. I'm out mum's birthday gift," he said over his shoulder to Regulus. Remus stood slightly to one side, his arms crossed over his chest, frowning. "Still, it isn't as if I can't find her something else, and this thing's bound to be useful beyond hunting magical reservoirs." Neither of them said a word, and somehow Sirius' nervousness increased with their silence. He studied the needle on the compass, and immediately realised an oversight. "Damn."
"Yes?" Lupin asked, having not dropped his frown.
"There's, what, four floors? Including the attic?"
"And this," he held up the sensor, "doesn't do altitude."
Lupin's lips pursed, "That could be a problem."
Regulus snorted. Neither offered advice.
"So," Sirius drew the word out, adding several syllables. "We'll pinpoint where, exactly, it is, and then search each floor?"
"Where's it pointing?" Lupin gestured to the sensor.
Sirius inclined his head east.
What followed was a very long, dusty, and awkward half hour in which hardly anyone spoke and they all manoeuvred through hallways of furniture stacked like building blocks against the walls and navigated through labyrinths of rooms that only led into other rooms before dead ending. Sirius' only consolation was that Regulus was visibly miserable.
Eventually, finally, they reached the spot where the needle remained steady. Experimentally, Sirius tilted it up and then down, but it expressed no preference for either direction. They were in a small parlour attached to a longer suite of rooms at the easternmost edge of the house. Its grey wallpaper still had a silvery sheen, but the curtains hung in ghostly tatters, once white but stained yellow with mildew, and all of the once elegant furniture lay broken.
"I'm beginning to think," Regulus drawled, looking about the room with unconcealed distaste, "that your ancestors are even madder than ours. Isn't there a house elf to go with this pile?"
Lupin nodded, doing an excellent job at concealing whether he was offended by Regulus' words or not.
"And what have you got it doing?"
"Regulus--" Sirius began. He was willing to disregard tactfulness rather more than was frankly prudent, but this was more like cutting its head off with a table knife and mounting it on a spike.
Regulus flashed him such a look, that, against his better judgement, but following his brotherly instincts, Sirius let him continue.
Remus looked between them. "Not much," he conceded. "I've mostly left her to herself."
"And she's probably terrified of you," Regulus shook his head.
"How did you--"
"She thinks you're going to sack her. House elves like to work for wizards. Whether you think it's morally corrupt or no, not letting her work is like punishment. She'll think you don't need her, and elves live for being needed."
Lupin retained very steady eye contact with Regulus, "What do you suggest?"
"Well," Regulus smiled, and it was like their mother looking out of Regulus' face for a second-- sharp and wry and endless amused, like an ironic shark playing games with its dinner.
"I'd suggest beginning with lunch. I'm starved."
Despite his professed hunger, Regulus only picked at his food, and when the meal was over he announced that he was leaving.
"Don't go," Sirius deadpanned. "I was enjoying your company."
"Sorry, brother," he glanced at Lupin, "brother's friend. But I've gotten all I came here for." Regulus disapparated, and they were left staring at each other for an uncomfortable moment.
"So that was your brother."
"He's kind of a bastard."
Sirius laughed, "It runs in the family."
Sirius had fixed a charm to the spot the sensor had led them to, so that a hair-fine beam of light cut up through the ceilings and floorboards and probably up past the room, to mark the place. They ascended the main staircase in awful, awkward silence. It persisted as they turned through corridors, Sirius checking their direction by the sensor.
"I'm sorry about your mother's gift," Lupin broke the silence. At Sirius' uncomprehending look, he explained, "You said you bartered it for the sensor," he gestured to Sirius hands and the bronze compass they held.
"Did I?" He couldn't recall it, but he supposed he must have, "Oh. No, it was nothing. I was only thinking about it. Giving it to her, I mean."
"What was it? I mean, if you don't mind my asking."
"No. Should I?"
"Er," Lupin looked more than a little wrong-footed, and Sirius dearly wished for a new brain/mouth filter, as obviously his was broken.
"It's an automatronic falcon. She likes that sort of thing."
"Birds, or magical curiosities?"
"Both?" he said, and smiled. Remus smiled back, and the anxious gnawing in Sirius stomach turned sweet and fluttering.
The tree wasn't on the second floor, and it wasn't on the third; they climbed up to the attic. Sirius had barely gotten halfway up the ladder before he felt it, "It's here."
Lupin was already climbing up into the hazy space above and dusting himself off, "The tree? How can you tell?"
Sirius clambered up onto the warped boards of the attic and peered off into the gloom, in the distance he could just see his beam of light. "It's a distinctive feel. Like a cactus covered in treacle rubbing up against your magical senses." Even in eerie, sourceless half-light that had sprung on when he opened the door, Sirius could see the path Lupins' eyebrows were taking towards his hairline. "Sharp," he explained, "and sticky."
Lupin laughed, the first time Sirius could recall him doing so; it felt like a victory.
Sirius made to go forward, but Lupin's hand came up, stopping him "Could you," he hesitated. "I mean, I don't even know if this is even... but. Could you... promise me something?"
He shifted from foot to foot, very aware of Remus hand on his arm, "Perhaps?"
"If the tree is here, could today, possibly, not be the last time we see each other?"
Suddenly it was Sirius' insides that had gained the cactus-in-treacle sensation. He made an attempt at nonchalance, "Are you asking me on a date?"
"I-- yes," he said, expression firming, his shoulder squaring. "Yes, I am."
The treacle-y cactus prodding his pancreas melted, not unpleasantly. "I accept."
One week, three days later:
Fairies drifted through the aesthetically overgrown gardens of Irma Black's country estate. Music sighed through the open windows of the ballroom out onto the terrace and into the night. Hundreds of guests danced and laughed, drank and ate in a never ceasing kaleidoscope of motion, illuminated by the soft focus glow of spell-light and the sporadic, many-coloured lightings of fairies.
There had been a private breakfast that morning with only his parents and brother, where Sirius and Regulus had given their gifts and admired the ruby, large as an egg, that Orion had already given her-- the real present was already in the garden, a sort of gravity resistant tree imported from Nepal, but jewellery was easier to show off. Regulus' violin had been received well, had, indeed, serenaded them for most of their meal.
"Sirius," Walburga had said, with a rare, true smile, when she saw what was in the box he had given her. It was a silver compact, its top decorated with moonstones and diamonds set in a moon and stars style. Opened, it revealed that, though one side was a mirror of highly polished silver, the other was a pool of water, deep enough to dip a hand in. It was a scrying tool, very popular in the sixteenth century, and long since fallen out of fashion. They were rare, due to the upkeep required on the charms that held the water in, beautiful, and useful: three traits his mother regarded highly.
"I restored it myself," he had told her, with a good deal of pride.
She had smiled again, and dipped her fingers into the charmed pool.
Remus came with him to the party, a last minute invitation that Regulus had already planned for. They were walking shoulder-to-shoulder, separate from the crowd, nearly at the wild scrub of brambles that marked the start of the wood.
"I'd understand," Sirius said, nervously tucking his hand into his pockets, "after all this, if you never wanted to see me again."
"All this?" Remus questioned.
"Oh, you know, my exploiting you to recover a long lost magical artefact."
"And this thing," he freed his hands to gesture around at the party. "Which, as a first date, probably leaves something to be desired."
Remus smiled, "When I asked I had envisioned something a little more low-key, yes." His hand brushed Sirius', and his smile faded. "I haven't been completely honest, either." He hesitated, glancing out at the woods, and then up at the sky.
Sirius saved him from having to say it, "You're a werewolf. I know."
"You know," Remus repeated, not looking at him, voice very level.
"For about a week now. You had to register when you came into the country. Those records are public."
This time he did glance over at Sirius, just for a second, "English werewolf legislation is barbaric."
"It is," Sirius agreed. "France is much nicer. I've been reading up about it." He had, actually, been reading everything he could find on werewolves in the past week. "I can see why you'd like it better."
"Actually," Remus huffed a little laugh, "I've decided to stay here." Sirius didn't say anything, just looked at him questioningly. "I've never seen myself as much as an activist, but the laws here--"
"Are appalling," Sirius finished for him. "Absolutely Middle Ages stuff, I know."
Remus' smile had come back, "So we're okay?"
Sirius' grin was crooked, "Well, let's see: I used you for my job--"
"Which is alright, because you weren't exactly subtle about it, and I wasn't pushing you away. And I was lying to you about my extremely dangerous, life-altering--"
"--painful, completely involuntary--"
"--condition, but that's alright, because you apparently lack any sense of self-preservation, and don't care, anyway."
"That sounds about right."
Remus kissed him.