"Why shouldn't we consider it?" The hag's gnarled fist comes down on the table hard enough to rattle mugs of beer and glasses of mead. "You tell me how it comes out any worse for us, in the end."
"'e don't keep 'is promises, that one," a goblin grunts. He doesn't have the slightly oily polish of the Gringotts goblins, but the eyes beneath his straggly brows are sharp. "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't."
A vampire, pale and pinched, speaks next; her posh accent wouldn't be out of place in the Ministry but is stranger than strange in Knockturn Alley. "What we know is that the wizarding world has no place for us in it. They have the feasts, and we have the scraps. Joining forces with the Dark Lord would be taking a chance. But perhaps the time has come to take a chance."
Nobody says yes. Nobody says no. They are all looking into each other's faces for answers, and this is a poor set of faces for such study: goblins, gnomes, banshees and hags. And werewolves.
Remus Lupin draws his cloak about him more firmly; an ill-stoked fire slumbers on the other side of the tavern, but what little heat it gives cannot penetrate the January chill. Quietly, he says, "If we were ever to join forces with Lord Voldemort, we would become what they say of us. We would be as—worthless, as undeserving, as the wizarding world would have us be."
The vampire laughs. "The wizarding world understands vampires very well. The rest of you may consider yourselves unfairly maligned—if you like." Her small, dark eyes reveal that she thinks the rest of them no better than herself, than any other vampire. In some cases, Remus knows, she is exactly right. How much of the air's chill is the frost, and how much is the banshee, who sucks energy and heat and life out of everything near? He doesn't dare look at the banshee directly, but a lock of her long, silver hair has drifted across his shoulder, fluttering as if in a breeze, and it feels like ice, even through the cloak.
But the goblin's shoes are scuffed, and his hands callused. He may not have risen to the banking caste, but whatever this one does, he works hard, like most goblins in their way. He wonders if the goblin is taking in Remus' own threadbare cloak, what conclusion he might draw from that. Remus is content for the goblins and the hags and the vampires to think whatever they will of him, so long as they do not guess his real purpose.
"The giants have spoken to emissaries from the Ministry," the banshee says, her thin, silvery voice shivering its way up Remus' spine. "Perhaps we might speak to the Ministry as well. At the very least, we might make a better bargain."
Perhaps, Remus thinks, the Ministry should speak to you. But he says nothing. He is here primarily to listen.
"That don't suit me," the hag says, shaking her head. "Us go beggin' to that lot? Not like they'd listen in any case."
"How true," the vampire says, her lips curling in a cruel smile. "We're not house-elves, bowing and scraping, though they'd like it if we were."
Remus' memory flashes back, with a suddenness and vividness that startles him, to Grimmauld Place at Christmas. He sees Hermione Granger chattering away about defensive spells and the many petty cruelties of Pansy Parkinson, while Remus himself sits next to her, cherry-colored wool yarn wound around his hands. Hermione had been sitting by the fire, knitting those foolish little hats, trying to set all the house-elves free. For a moment, the heat of that fire is more real than the dying, ash-choked heap in the tavern's corner. Remus remembers her girlish conversation, the smell of Molly Weasley's cooking, and most of all the incredulous smile Sirius gave him from the doorway. Sirius smiles too seldom these days.
He tries to pull himself back into the tavern debate, but he can't. This place and this company make him crave the relative warmth of Grimmauld Place. For the rest of the meeting, Remus makes brief mental notes, comes up with mnemonics that will prompt him for names and dates. He wishes to be anywhere else; he wishes to be home, wherever that is. Number 12 Grimmauld Place isn't it.
It could be, if he were free to choose. But he is not.
Sirius opens the door himself. Despite every warning they've given him, despite the fact that the knock could only have been from an Order member who would scold him or a Death Eater who would kill him, Sirius opens the door himself. His long dark hair whips away from his face as the winter wind snaps through the doorway. "Moony, you'll catch your death. Get inside, will you?"
Although Remus, as a good and dutiful member of the Order of the Phoenix, has opened his mouth to begin the latest safety lecture, he finds that he hasn't the stomach for it. So what if Sirius should have waited for Kreacher? That wait could be a while, and God knows, it is too cold out for man or beast, or those who happen to be both.
"Don't suppose you have anything warm on the stove," Remus says, by way of greeting.
"Lamb stew," Sirius says. At Remus' surprised stare, he smiles ruefully and adds, "Molly taught me a few things over the holiday. I've been trying to learn some dishes—fills the time, anyway, and if I can't do anything else for the members of the Order, I can feed them." He almost manages to make himself sound proud.
Remus is less surprised by the cooking than by the fact that there was any food left over in the house to cook with. Sirius hasn't been a starving dog for eight months now, but still he eats, and he eats, and he never has enough. His frame is still bony, still burning with the kinetic, corrosive energy that has fueled him since Azkaban – since James' death, probably.
But when he walks into the kitchen, Remus can smell the stew, hearty and rich. Better still is the look of the room itself; the wooden table shines, the curtains are crisp and places are neatly set. Number 12 Grimmauld Place looks—and, the rumbling of his stomach reminds him, smells—like a place Sirius is taking pride in again. Like a home again.
"So, how did it go?" Sirius asks, as ever a little too eagerly. "Any, ah, complications? Didn't have to fight your way out of that madhouse, did you?"
Weirdly, Remus hates to disappoint him. "No, I didn't. It was all rather calm, really. Almost businesslike. Dry as a debate about cauldron-thickness regulations." He sums up the meeting, trying to make it sound marginally more engaging, to add some element of interest to Sirius' undoubtedly dull day. Apparently he doesn't succeed.
"That's all you heard? After risking your neck?" Sirius saws through the bread as though slicing through something far more substantial. "Damn it, if they won't give me real work, they ought to at least trust you."
"It's not that the Order doesn't trust me," Remus says. "Sometimes it's the small details that matter. We know now that they're so angry, so ready to bolt, that they'll talk about joining forces with Voldemort as though it meant nothing. As far as they're concerned, it's merely a choice between two evils."
Sirius talks through a mouthful of stew. He isn't civilized enough not to eat like a wild thing, not yet. "I don't blame them for hating the Ministry. Not at all. But if they can't tell the difference between that sort of evil and Voldemort's—"
"I think they can tell the difference," Remus says quietly. "I just don't think they care."
That quiets Sirius, and for the next few minutes they eat in the silence of unshared thoughts. Sirius, probably, is considering the twists and turns of the coming war, the many ways he thinks he could shape it, if given the chance.
But Sirius won't get that chance, not anytime soon, as Remus well knows. Dumbledore felt that Sirius was still too unsteady after his years as a prisoner and then a fugitive – then, to Remus' consternation, prescribed the one course of action guaranteed to destabilize Sirius further: He made him a prisoner again.
Number 12 Grimmauld Place has always been a prison to Sirius. Remus has known this since he was a boy, and he could never forget it, not even if he had not been assigned as the latest in a long series of jailers. Sirius doesn't say so; he doesn't even blame Remus, and his blame is not in short supply these days. But he knows it, and Remus knows it, and it lies heavy between them, even now.
"It's good stew," Remus finally says, just to have something to say. Then, to his surprise, he realizes it's true. The meat is savory and tender, the turnips still crisp.
Sirius smiles, sheepish about his pride. "Who knows? Maybe I'll end up a master chef. Be on the cover of Witch's Weekly with my prize cakes."
"You'll be quite the heartthrob," Remus predicts. "With Gilderoy Lockhart out of commission, they need a new poster boy." This earns him a withering glare from Sirius, at least for the two seconds before they both start laughing.
Moments like this are the worst – the ones where the barriers fall, and when Sirius is himself again, and Remus remembers what it feels like to be happy. It's moments like this when he finds himself wanting to brush Sirius' unruly hair away from his face, to lean across the table, to forget his duty and everything else. And that's just what he can't do. The laughter dies within him too quickly; Sirius' face falls, not knowing why the joke stopped being funny or how to ask.
"I'm sorry," Remus says. "I'm just – exhausted."
"Of course you are," Sirius says. Whatever hurt feelings he has are buried beneath his concern, so warm and so tangible that Remus thinks he could pull it around him like a blanket. "You don't look well. That potion –"
"Is taxing," Remus admits. "But it's better than the alternative."
Sirius hesitates, then leans slightly across the table. "It's taking a toll on you. Don't think I don't see."
Remus forgets, sometimes, that Sirius watches him as carefully as he watches Sirius. He says quietly, "That's not the potion, Sirius. That's what being a werewolf does to you."
He's tempted to make a black joke about how you don't see many werewolves in old folks' homes, and how fortunate that is for the staff. But when he sees the stricken look on Sirius' face, he remains silent. He can't help Sirius come to terms with it until he does so himself; these days, the best he can do is tell himself that Voldemort's coming war probably means he won't find out just how long lycanthropy will take to kill him, and really, that's not all that cheering.
At last, Sirius says, "The changing back and forth – it hurts you? I mean – I know it's painful, but—"
Remus replies, "It takes a toll, over time." To lighten the moment, he makes a face, as though it were just an annoyance after all. "Not the changing, really. It's dealing with people who won't rent to you, or give you work, or who just look down their noses at you. Having to deal with being regulated by the Ministry, because nobody trusts a werewolf. You can blame Cornelius Fudge for most of these gray hairs."
That should do the trick; once set on the evils of the Ministry of Magic, Sirius often roars with anger for at least an hour. Instead, Sirius only looks more stricken. After a long silence, he says, "I should have trusted you."
"What?" Remus realizes what Sirius is talking about too late to change the subject. "Sirius, don't."
"I doubted you, and I believed in Peter, and because of that James and Lily died." Sirius's hand is shaking, and Remus quickly covers it with his own, telling himself he's not using this moment as an excuse for them to touch. Sirius doesn't react; he's too lost in memory and remorse. "All because I didn't trust –"
"You trusted Peter. I did too. James and Lily – all of us did." Remus isn't going to touch the question of Sirius doubting him instead; among the many rules he uses to guide their hours together is that only one of them is allowed to fall apart at a time. Given what he's been through, Sirius is almost always the one, but if Remus lets himself think too long and too hard about the fact that Sirius, James and Lily all believed – no. He's not going to think about it.
"That's why I didn't tell them the truth, you know." Sirius' hand still trembles beneath Remus' fingers. "About what happened. I knew I'd killed them, the same as if I'd cursed them myself. I deserved Azkaban. Worse than that."
"Sirius, no. You didn't deserve that." He remembers the faceless gloom beneath a Dementor's hood and shudders. "You could never have deserved that."
Sirius smiles at him, a smile both so gentle and so terrible that it rips Remus' heart. "You didn't think so then. "
The trial. Remus hasn't thought about it in years. He never could bear the memory, even during the long years he'd believed Sirius guilty. "I'm sorry, Sirius."
"Your face. You couldn't have known what you looked like. God." Sirius quaffs a deep gulp of wine, and that seems to steady him. He says, more evenly, "Don't apologize for the way you felt."
"I won't if you won't," Remus says, and it feels infinitely good to let the subject drop.
They move into an easier mode then, making the smallest of small talk, washing the dishes, working in concert as though they'd spent the past years side by side. It's only awkward at the very end, when Sirius walks him to the front door. "Well," Sirius says, clearly wanting to say more.
Remus' blood is hot under his skin, his pulse humming in his throat, his stomach, his fingertips. "Been a long day," he says, which is stupid; he needs to cut this moment short, not stand around chatting. Standing around chatting, standing close to Sirius, standing there knowing what he'd like to do next – not good. And yet they're standing there.
"Glad you're here," Sirius says. It's not obviously a line.
"Me too," Remus says, and then he sees Sirius' hand shift, moving toward him just the slightest bit. Quickly he opens the front door, steps through into the frigid night air, smiles only quickly over his shoulder. "Night, Padfoot."
"Good night," Sirius says. He gives a quick nod, disappointed but not deterred, and turns away even before Remus has closed the door.
Remus hears the lock click and shudder, then slumps against the door. If desire alone could propel him, he'd melt through the wood, through the wall, and fall into Sirius' arms. He imagines Sirius' mouth opening beneath his, then clamps down on the fantasy, hard.
As Dumbledore and Molly Weasley and Kingsley Shacklebolt and all the rest never cease to remind him, he's there to manage Sirius. Which pretty much precludes sleeping with him or even – and this is worse – telling him the truth. About almost anything.
London doesn't see much heavy snow, but a fair bit of it is dusting down right now. Remus pulls on his dragon-hide gloves and heads resolutely for the nearest stop on the Floo network. It's a long, cold walk, but less uncomfortable, all things considered, than staying over at Number 12. He's been doing that too often, lately, because of Sirius. Remus never felt like this about Sirius before, but now—
This isn't precisely true; in reality, Remus had a crush on Sirius, but he had a crush on each of them, each different in its way. He loved the way James' hair caught in the breeze – the way Peter's voice went deeper when he was confiding a secret – the way Sirius' shoulders and back broadened with every passing year. The adolescent Remus Lupin also had crushes on the muscular Hufflepuff Seeker, an exchange student from Beauxbatons with curly blond hair and Professor Augustus Kettleburn, back when he still had an unlined face and all his fingers. His memories of adolescence are all drenched in longing of one sort or another, tinted with it, the way old photographs become sepia-toned with time. However, Remus knows, he didn't have any more of a crush on Sirius than he did on anyone else. That was just one of dozens of desires he never expected to fulfill.
That was what made it all the more startling when, two years into Auror training, Sirius had come striding into one of Lily's parties with a boyfriend. His arm had been slung around the man's shoulder – Remus can no longer remember the name that was shouted over the gathering's din of laughter and music, but he remembers the man's broad smile and dark skin – and Sirius had expected them all to be happy about it.
And, of course, they had been. Remus, who had spent the last few years in the closet, had been stunned to see how easily everyone accepted the idea. Sirius was gay. Nobody cared, not then nor in the future, when other men passed through various pub-crawls and birthday bashes on Sirius' arm.
Even then, Remus kept his secret. He'd imagined all sorts of ways of coming out to his friends, but none were quite as humiliating as meekly raising his hand and saying, "Me, too." He kept trying to find another way, another solution, and then finally he stumbled into the worst of all.
He didn't come out until there was nobody left to come out to.
Typical, Remus thinks, slipping into a back alley where a rag-clad old woman huddles next to a small fire in a trashcan. I was always too cautious. Sirius was never cautious enough. He came out the way he did everything else – barreling along, full speed ahead, damn the consequences. It's reckless, but God knows, it has its appeal.
"Headed home, love?" says the old woman, who is in fact a well-disguised Winifred Threeple, Auror emeritus and a member of the Order.
Remus begins to say yes, but then he realizes that it's time – past time – for him to revisit a certain topic. "Actually, I'd like to stop in at Hogwarts."
Winifred raises an eyebrow. "We've only got Dumbledore's own fire open there. You sure you want to pop in on him this time of night?"
"I think he'd rather I did." Fortunately, Winifred questions him no more, just gestures him forward. Remus sighs as he slips into the fire, still lost in thought.
A rush of sound, a flare of heat, a dizzying swirl – and Remus finds himself stumbling out of the fire into Dumbledore's office. The disorienting effect of traveling by Floo makes him temporarily unable to focus on anything besides what he first laid eyes on: a phoenix. Fawkes cocks his head, and a few straggly feathers molt from his shabby back.
"Almost at the end of his cycle," Dumbledore says. Remus finally straightens enough to see the headmaster rising from behind his desk, where a Pensieve swirls. "Fawkes is due for another of his rebirths. I envy him those, sometimes."
"Getting older over and over again, dying over and over again – doesn't sound very enviable to me." Remus was tired enough that he wanted to sink into one of the inviting armchairs that circled the fire, but with the aged Dumbledore standing before him, he couldn't quite bring himself to sit. "I'm sorry to arrive unannounced."
"Quite all right, Remus," Dumbledore says.
Remus half-laughs, awkward about where to begin. "But – Professor – it's not exactly an emergency –"
"Of course not. If it were, you would have informed me immediately." Dumbledore lowers himself slowly into one of the armchairs, allowing Remus to sit as well. "I confess, I've been anticipating this visit for some time."
They are quiet together for a moment, and then Remus sighs. "Am I that transparent?"
"Only to one who has known both of you for as long as I have," Dumbledore replies.
Remus says, "At first, it made sense. I agreed with you. Rushing into anything would have been bad for both of us."
The light from the fireplace flickers in the panes of Dumbledore's glasses, rendering his eyes unreadable. "Don't you think that this is still true?"
"No. I mean – yes, but – he's been back for a year and a half, Professor. We've seen each other more and more regularly, and now I spend almost as much time at Number 12 as I do at my own home."
"More, I think." Dumbledore steeples his hands, as if considering. Remus is quite aware that his mind is already made up. "Matters between you have changed, and for the better, I think. But Sirius himself hasn't changed at all."
He's wrong; Sirius is getting worse. But that's not exactly a point that would help Remus here.
Dumbledore continues, "He's unstable, Remus. Even volatile. Sirius is important to us all – not only because of who he is, and what he's suffered, but because he is so very important to Harry. And I needn't tell you how critical Harry's role in this battle may yet become."
Remus, who has up until this moment never had a negative thought about Harry Potter in his life, wonders sourly if that means Sirius should be kept folded up in a closet with the other security blankets. Then he imagines Lily's face, her green eyes reproachful, and takes it back.
Instead he says, "I don't see why you're so certain that our – being –" How to put this? "—involved would make Sirius worse. I don't think it would. It might even make him better."
Too late, Remus realizes he's stepped into the trap. Dumbledore leans back, shaking his head. "If you're trying to cure him, Remus, you are making an error more grave than I had realized. An error that could deeply hurt you both."
"I'm not trying to fix him," Remus says, but it sounds weak even to him. Until he knows that more surely than he does at this moment, making his move would be wrong. Or, at least, remain forbidden. But it doesn't feel like the answer, not the whole answer anyway, and so he tries again: "Not being with him – Professor, it's starting to be the same as lying to him. And too many people have lied to Sirius. I don't want to be another."
"I know," Dumbledore says heavily, and he pats Remus on the shoulder. "But it's too great a risk. To both of you personally, though I have no authority to command you in that area. But also to Sirius as someone important to the Order. As part of your duty to the Order, I must ask you to trust me in this regard."
Trusting the Order is easy for Sirius. They're the only ones who trust him in return. He takes a deep breath and says, "I understand." He tells himself he really does.
Dumbledore smiles. "Perhaps you need some distraction. A new assignment."
Remus raises his head in alarm. Does this mean being removed from London, from Sirius? He keeps his voice even as he says, "When? And where?"
"Soon, and nearby," Dumbledore says. "But you may wish you had asked 'what' first of all.
Another night, another bar, this one far different from the last. Somebody pays attention to Muggle trends and styles here; Remus notes, with distaste, the cool blue-and-silver décor, the black tile floor, the shoots of bamboo shoved into sharp-cornered square glass vases. The music that thumps from the enchanted panels on the walls is heavy on beat, low on lyrics. The witches and wizards here wear robes of rich fabrics, tailored closely to their bodies. A few of the witches have sheer mesh panels that fall across their flat bellies or bare backs. Some of the wizards wear the latest fashion, heavy gold torque bracelets that show well beneath artfully pushed-up robe sleeves.
Remus' robes are shabby and his wrists bare. He stands out, and not in a good way. This is the general idea.
At 10:30 – on cue, to the second, not that Remus would have expected anything else – Severus Snape walks in. His hair is as lank as ever, his face as cheerless. He fits in here better than Remus does, though, not least because of the disdainful look he shoots Remus' way. Remus does his best to look surprised, then stares down at his drink.
Dumbledore would probably disapprove of the firewhiskey while on duty, but Remus thinks it can only help. Adds realism.
It's at least five minutes before Snape sidles up to him and says, maybe a little too loudly, "Well, well. Isn't this place rather expensive for you, Mr. Lupin?"
"I can afford a drink, Severus," Remus replies. He doesn't have to feign the irritation; they didn't script this scene, but Snape knows very well where to direct his jabs.
"Perhaps you can't afford too many more." Snape raises one aquiline eyebrow. "Sad, really, to see you come to this. Not that you had much farther to fall – and yet you manage to plumb new depths."
Remus tries to respond with sullen, drunken indignation. "You're the one who'd know about sinking low. You're the one who was a Death Eater."
He doesn't say those last two words loudly, but they carry throughout the room, cleaving cleanly through the din. Heads turn. Some people look shocked, even horrified; some don't. The latter are their intended audience.
Snape's face is even harsher than usual, and Remus is pretty sure it's not all an act. "At least I can accept what I am – Werewolf."
The few people who didn't react to "Death Eater" react now. Everyone is staring, and the revulsion is all directed at Remus. He's seen it before, dozens of times, but it hits him hard nonetheless. It always does.
"You're the one who can't accept what I am," Remus says, voice low. The words matter less now than the expression on his face, and Remus is sure it's angry enough to serve.
"And why should I accept you?" Snape tilts his head. "Why should I accept a half-breed, inhuman creature as the equal of pureblooded wizards?"
Remus reels backward, as though he'd been struck. He will be soon enough.
The crowd is murmuring now, mostly in agreement. Some of them don't care for Death Eaters, but none of them like werewolves. Remus has a monopoly on their hate. He rasps, "Watch it, Severus. We're not at Hogwarts now. You don't have Dumbledore fooled into protecting you."
Snape smiles, a more genuine expression than Remus would have expected to see on his face. Bastard. "I might say the same, Mr. Lupin." Without even a pause, his wand in his hand in an instant, Snape says, "Repulsio!"
Whip-crack fast, the spell snaps into Remus like a bolt of fire across his chest, shoving him out of his chair. He stumbles and falls backwards, his foot slamming into a table leg and sending his firewhiskey tumbling to the floor. Shards of glass fly through the air, and Remus feels a few of them prick into the side of his face.
"Nice work," Remus says, and deviates from the script by grabbing Snape's ankle and pulling hard.
Nobody said he HAD to fight with spells, after all.
Snape tumbles to the floor, giving Remus the chance he needs to punch Snape squarely in the jaw. Blood sprays from his mouth, the smell of it thick in the air; not all Remus' werewolf instincts vanish with the full moon.
"Repulsio!" Snape's voice is thick from the injury Remus just inflicted, but the spell works well enough, sliding Remus across the floor and into the wall. His back cracks, and he can feel the plaster give way behind his head. Everything goes dim around the edges for a moment, and Remus wonders vaguely if he's about to throw up.
"Is there a problem here?" That should be the bar owner, or the manager, or whoever's in charge. Remus can't lift his head from the tile floor to see his face.
"I'm afraid there is," Snape says. Remus can tell he's gotten to his feet. "This – inhuman trash – has been causing trouble."
"Get that thing out of here!" a woman's voice shrills. Others begin shouting their agreement. All this hatred was what they were after, but it doesn't make it all that much easier to bear.
Remus feels the hands beneath his arms, dragging him up to his knees. "Werewolf, huh?" the manager snarls.
He gives the response he's always longed to: "Fuck off."
In reply, Remus is shoved through the door; he slams against the glass and steel, then tumbles forward onto the icy ground. Behind him, he can hear muted applause. As he glances over his shoulder, he can see witches and wizards surrounding Severus Snape, patting him on the shoulder, offering to buy him drinks. A few more people who might have doubted Snape's true allegiance are convinced now. He's done his job. Snape's role isn't over, which no doubt is the reason he doesn't look outside to see how badly Remus has been hurt.
After a few minutes, he realizes that he can in fact stand up and pull his strength together to Apparate.
"You're telling Dumbledore about this," Sirius orders.
"Dumbledore knows about it. It was Dumbledore's idea." Remus tries to push the washcloth away to meet Sirius' eyes, but Sirius will have none of it. He keeps bathing the cuts along Remus' cheekbone, and Remus has to be content to lie back in his bed and submit to it.
"The idea was that you two would have an argument. A shoving match, maybe. Not for Severus Snape to beat you up – as though he'd ever have stood a chance, if you were able to do your worst –"
"We wouldn't be fighting," Remus insists. "We're on the same side here, Padfoot. You forget that."
"He forgot it tonight, from the looks of things." Sirius pulls the washcloth away and frowns at the faint traces of blood. He leans back against one of the great carved bedposts. His rueful smile is unexpected, and because of that all the more welcome. "At least tell me you got in a good lick or two."
Remus grins, ignoring the stripes of pain across his cheek. "Punched him like a Muggle. Hard, too. He'll be feeling that for a couple of days."
"And that's the Remus Lupin I remember." Is it? But if it makes Sirius grin so broadly, Remus is willing to be remembered that way. "At least you gave Snivellus an idea what he could have expected if your hands hadn't been tied."
He ought to upbraid Sirius for using that terrible old nickname. Instead Remus is wishing he'd thought of it back in the bar. "We did what we had to do, that's all. I doubt he enjoyed it any more than I did." He props himself up on his elbows, then winces as his temples throb. "Though he might be enjoying it more now."
Sirius shakes his head. "Wouldn't surprise me a bit if he talked Dumbledore into the whole thing, just to get a crack at you."
"Too bad they couldn't have sent you instead. You and Severus would get along better if you had a chance to thrash each other a time or two. Also, that way, it wouldn't be my head hurting."
"Too bad," Sirius says hollowly. The man would even welcome the chance to be beaten up; at least it would be something to do.
"You'll get your chance." Remus lies back onto the pillow and breathes out slowly. "It won't always be like this."
"Right," Sirius says, but the response is automatic. He sets about bandaging the small cuts on Remus' face, but his mind is a thousand miles away. For the first time, Remus realizes what an odd position that is to be in: Sirius has to wait for Voldemort to do more damage, for lives to be lost, for the war to begin outright. It's the only way his life will ever change. The one path out of this, for him, is outlined in blood.
"Could've at least chosen a decent pub," Remus mutters, mostly to distract himself from the touch of Sirius' fingers against his cheek. "You'd have hated it. All sharp edges and chrome, and you should have seen the bartender look down his nose at me when I dared order something as plain as firewhiskey."
Sirius smiles again, though more faintly this time. "Doesn't sound very appealing." He smoothes his fingertips across the bandage, sealing it at last. "Suppose there weren't any handsome young chaps worth talking to."
Remus has to work to keep his face impassive. This is the first time they've ever discussed, however tacitly, his sexuality. "Handsome, yes. Worth talking to, no."
"Not your type, then."
"No." He's breathing a little more rapidly now, and he can't meet Sirius' eyes. All their other close calls have happened in places far safer than the bedroom; lying in bed, with Sirius sitting just inches away, his hand almost touching Remus' face – not safe. Not safe at all. "It wouldn't matter if they had been."
"Why not?" Sirius shifts slightly on the bed, and Remus realizes too late that he hasn't been clear.
"I wasn't there to pick someone up." He winces, though he doesn't feel any pain at the moment. "I was there so Severus Snape could pound the living daylights out of me, and he's done it. Now all I'm fit for is a Sleeping Draught."
Sirius smiles easily, as though they hadn't come close to anything at all. "Right you are. I'll fetch it upstairs for you, how's that?"
Remus nods as Sirius goes. By the time he returns, Remus will be able to feign being half-asleep already.
This happens more and more often, now: They walk right to the edge, then step back. Unfortunately, seduction works much the same way.
That night, he slips fitfully in and out of sleep, groggy with exhaustion but prodded into wakefulness by pain and desire. Remus wonders how long it's been since Sirius touched anyone. Is that all it is? It's been too damned long for Remus himself, even if he doesn't have as good an excuse as Azkaban.
Maybe it's just loneliness, then. Maybe they've been deprived too long, and it's muddling their heads, just like too much wine. If that's the case, then maybe fighting their attraction is the stupidest thing he could do. Instead, Remus ought to walk down the hall, go into Sirius' bedroom and shag him senseless. They could do it two or five or ten times, fuck each other until they can't talk or move or think, and then it will be out of their systems. Then they can act like normal people again.
Normal. Remus laughs at himself, muffling the sound in the pillow.
When your rationalizations get this stupid, he tells himself, you're in too deep. But he knew that already.
Kingsley Shacklebolt frowns down at the numbers written in feathery goblin numerology. "Explain this to me again."
Remus sighs and leans over the wall of scarlet-leather bound financial ledgers they've collected – at great risk – from a little-used vault at Gringotts. The theft of the ledgers involved hidden passageways, Disillusionment spells and dodging at least a dozen inlaid curses—the stuff Auror recruiters spin tales about. But the recruiters never mentioned the long hours of interpreting all the dry, dull information you'd risked your life to get. At the moment, they've created a makeshift workstation in the heart of an unused catacomb that's long on spider webs and short on heat; the only light comes from a few candles Kingsley enchanted to hang above their heads.
"The Ministry accounts don't reflect anything like the actual spending that's got to be going on. They've hired new people by the dozens, created powers and titles for them – which no doubt come accompanied by raises." Remus gestures to the long lines of numbers, not as long as they ought to be.
"But none of that's written down." Nymphadora Tonks scowls down at the books as though they'd done something truly outrageous, like use her first name. Her hair – which, for the moment, is waist-length and peacock-green – falls over Remus' shoulder as she bends down. "This is bad, isn't it?"
Remus calls to mind an old spell, thinking: And they always say you'll never use Arithmancy again. He gives the account book a sharp tap with his wand and says, "Tabulo."
Instantly, the numbers begin scurrying across the page like tiny spiders, squiggling out of one column and into another. Tonks beams, but Remus shakes his head and frowns. "This still doesn't add up." He tries the charm again, and all the little numbers reorganize themselves once more – into yet another completely new, completely false set.
Kingsley gives a low whistle. "These books are COOKED."
"And then some." Remus tucks his wand back into his belt. "We won't get anything useful out of these."
Tonks groans. "What, have the Ministry even got the goblins on their side? I thought that lot couldn't care less about wizard wars."
Remus says, "They're getting paid to do this –"
"To Fudge the numbers?" Tonks grins as he winces. Kingsley rolls his eyes skyward.
"To engage in dishonest bookkeeping," Remus says, raising his eyebrows at her. "The question is whether the Ministry is paying them, or someone else."
Kingsley catches on first. "Someone could be trying to undermine Fudge or anyone else at the Ministry, by making it appear that they've diverted funds. Or maybe funds are being diverted to Voldemort's side, through inside sources there."
"But it could be the Ministry, right?" Tonks insists, thumping chipped black fingernails on the page. "Maybe they figured we'd try something like this – trying to get a look at how they're doing things through looking at the cash."
"Could be," Remus admits. "Unfortunately, we don't know which."
"And we can't find out without –" Kingsley grimaces. "Without stealing the goblins' books for their own accounts."
"Are you mad?" Tonks swats the side of Kingsley's bald head; his gold earring wobbles. "Got any idea how many curses they'll have surrounding those things? Make tonight look like a shrubbery maze, that would."
Remus sighs. "I think you're right, Tonks. The security they'll have around their own accounts – it's not worth the risk."
Kingsley says heavily, "Which means we did all this for nothing."
"AND we get to do it all again when we put them back." Tonks kicks at one of the ledgers, then plops down next to Remus. "Bloody hell."
They're all silent for a few minutes, and Remus tries to fully absorb the frustration and misery of the moment. That way, when he tells all this to Sirius later, Sirius won't feel so damned left out.
Then he thinks about that for a moment and says, "Listen, you two – can I run something by you?"
Kingsley shrugs and nods. Tonks grins, saying, "Always open to suggestions."
Carefully, Remus says, "I've been thinking about talking to Dumbledore. Asking him to make a few changes."
"What, where we all get paid a million Galleons a year and don't have to act like criminals for just doing our jobs?" Tonks says. "Sounds fine to me."
Kingsley, however, seems to realize that Remus is leading up to something important. He leans forward and steeples his hands in front of him. "What is it, Remus?"
"It's about Sirius." They both stiffen at the name; Remus pretends not to see. "I know that we have to keep him hidden. But that doesn't mean we can't give him something to do. Something of some substance."
Tonks' face falls – metaphorically, not literally, which with her is an option. Kingsley says, "He's not stable. You know that." His words parrot Dumbledore's so closely that Remus is almost angry; he wants somebody to think for himself about Sirius, just this once.
"I don't deny that he's—troubled," Remus says. "But being cooped up with nothing to do is making him worse, not better. He's an intelligent man and a gifted spell-caster. He could be an asset to us, and instead we're a liability to him."
"What are we supposed to do with him?" Tonks says. "We can't take him anywhere, not without running the risk of getting him sent back to Azkaban. Or worse, if Fudge still has any Dementors on his payroll."
Remus shivers at the thought of a Dementor's kiss, at how close Sirius came to that fate. "No, I know he can't leave. But we could bring work to him. There are enchantments we haven't been able to break. Scrolls we haven't been able to translate. Sirius has the skills to work with those, if we'll let him."
"He's not the only one with those skills," Kingsley says. "We have other people who can handle it."
"They don't need the work. Sirius does."
Tonks cocks her head at him. "It's not about who needs the work. It's about the work itself. We have to do it as fast as we can, as well as we can. It's not work therapy."
Remus glares at her, his anger sharper for knowing she's right. Tonks wilts; for all her bluster, she's a softhearted creature. She grips Remus' wrists and says, "I feel bad for him, Remus, you know I do! But this isn't about him. It's not about any one of us."
"The Order will ask some of us to die," Kingsley says in his deep voice. "The sacrifice we're asking of Sirius is different, but it's a sacrifice. Everyone has to know that and accept it."
Everyone meaning me, Remus thinks. "It wouldn't be charity. He's good at this work. He'd pick it up again quickly –"
"And until he did?" Kingsley shakes his head. "Talk to Dumbledore if you like. Whatever Dumbledore says, I'll go along with. But I won't back you up, if that's what you're asking. I don't think it's wise."
"Well, Tonks?" Remus says.
She's collected herself already, and she lifts her chin defiantly. "I'm staying out of it too. I'll not let my feelings get the better of me on this, and you shouldn't either."
"No, I suppose it helps not to have any feelings," Remus says. "Must come in handy, when you're telling a man who spent 12 years in Azkaban for murders he didn't commit that he has to go back to jail, only now it'll be his friends locking him up, not Dementors, so that's lucky for him –"
"Remus." Tonks takes his hands, and her touch and her voice are so gentle that they stem the bitter tide inside him. "I know it's hard for Sirius. And it's got to be hard for you to see him that way." She speaks so warmly that Remus wonders, for a few moments, how much she's guessed. "But we'll all do harder than this before this war's through."
"That's true." Maybe he should be glad Sirius is out of harm's way. Maybe that should be enough for him. But it will never be enough for Sirius. "I'll remind him. And I'll remember."
Tonks smiles, encouraged. "There you go. Besides, some of the Order members are tough old nuts; they say we've made enough exceptions already. Stupid gits."
Remus freezes, his body stiff, his mouth half-open. Kingsley runs one hand over his scalp and looks skyward, for the moment unable to meet Remus' eyes.
The exception they made, of course, is for a werewolf. Remus knows how deeply his kind are distrusted, but he hadn't realized how deeply it ran within the Order itself. The Order of the Phoenix – the one place he 'd thought himself an equal, at least in the many years since he was one of four beasts in the Shrieking Shack.
My coworkers, he thinks. My best friends. They all see the same thing, in the end.
"Remus?" Tonks stares at him. "Remus, what's wrong?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Remus tries to laugh, to make it a joke. Instead he just sounds strange, almost unhinged.
"You don't let fools like that bother you, do you?" She genuinely doesn't get it. Probably, Remus realizes, because that kind of prejudice is foreign to her; Tonks wouldn't care less about being assigned to work with a werewolf or a ghost or a super-intelligent penguin. "They're morons, the lot of them! You know that. So does everyone else."
Who else? Kingsley still isn't looking him in the face, and the sliver of the world in which Remus felt comfortable has become even thinner.
She wraps her fingers more securely around his. "Remus?"
"Let's get these back," Remus says, gesturing to the ledgers. "The longer we wait, the harder it'll be."
By the time Remus reaches Number 12 Grimmauld Place, it's almost dawn; the February chill has leached heat from his body until his teeth chatter. He can't bear to awaken Sirius and subject him to this, so he simply mutters "Alohomora" and gets in that way.
Remus tiptoes past that ghastly portrait of Sirius' mother as he makes his way inside. Only as he reaches the stairwell does it occur to him that he could as easily have gone to the rooms he rents across town; tonight, Sirius isn't expecting him. He tends to come here when he thinks he can do Sirius some good. Keep him company. So how does that translate to him showing up hours after Sirius has fallen asleep?
Too late, he realizes – Grimmauld Place is becoming home to him. He'll have to change that, or accept it. Right now, he can't think which would be worse.
A dark shape moves in the corner, and Remus freezes for the instant it takes him to realize that it's Sirius. Sirius breathes out slowly; he's clad only in his nightshirt, and his wand is clasped in one hand. "Damn it all to hell, Moony," he mutters. "Why didn't you knock?"
"Cold out," Remus says. He's still shivering so hard that it makes it difficult to speak. "No point."
Sirius looks at him more carefully, his eyes perhaps adjusting to the darkness. "Look at you," he says, his voice gentle. Before Remus can react, Sirius has set down his wand; he pulls Remus into his embrace, rubbing his arms and back vigorously, to warm him up.
And he is definitely warming up, in more ways than one. Oh, God, he'd come up with excuses and defenses for everything else, but not this, not actually being in Sirius' arms. His hands come up to rest on Sirius' back, as though Remus had no ability to control them.
"You're freezing," Sirius murmurs. Their cheeks are touching, and Sirius' skin feels like fire next to Remus' half-numb face.
"I'm all right," Remus says. He ought to pull away. His last chance to end this without it becoming awkward or ugly is slipping away by the second. But instead he finds his arms tightening around Sirius' waist.
"Are you?" Sirius doesn't seem to expect an answer. His rubbing has already awakened warmth and feeling throughout Remus' body; perhaps he can sense it, because he slows down. The rubbing becomes stroking, long and slow and smooth. One hand brushes Remus' close-cropped hair, then traces down the nape of his neck.
Part of Remus' brain – the part that's been well-trained by Dumbledore – still wants to pull away. But the rest of him can only think how good it feels to be touched, how good it feels to be held close. "That's nice," he whispers.
"Yes." Sirius' unshaven cheek rasps against Remus' as he speaks.
They're holding one another now in the darkness, still not looking at each other, still just short of giving in. Everything that seemed forbidden before seems so immediate now. So necessary.
"Remus – I know it wouldn't be easy –"
"And it could all go wrong – and if it went wrong, that would be awful –"
"Yes." They're moving slowly, so slowly, their faces sliding against each other as they pull back to face each other at last. Remus rests his forehead against Sirius'; their noses press against each other, and their lips almost touch. "It would be."
They look into each other's eyes for a moment, but it's too intimate, being this close. Sirius looks down first and murmurs, "I kept hoping I could get around this."
"Get around what?"
"Throwing myself at you." Sirius smiles, and it's good to see.
Remus smiles back and says, "Sorry about that willpower thing."
"I'll forgive you. This time." Sirius's breath is warm against his mouth. "Everything's so fucked up for the two of us."
"No it's not," Remus says. And it's true. Of all the people who've ever doubted him for what he is, Sirius is the only one who paid the price. He can trust Sirius, because Sirius has suffered for not trusting him. That's as close to healthy as Remus is going to get. "We'll be all right."
"Promise?" Sirius whispers. Their lips brush against each other as he speaks, not quite a kiss.
"No," Remus says. And when he kisses Sirius at last, when Sirius' tongue pushes between his lips, he knows he was a fool for ever holding back. They kiss hungrily, feasting on each other, unable to move toward the bedroom or explore each other's bodies, to do anything but kiss, and kiss, and kiss again.
"Oh, God." Sirius groans into the side of Remus' neck. "We're in deep, aren't we?"
"We are," Remus says, tugging at the fastenings of his own robe. "And I don't care. Do you?"
Dumbledore would disapprove. So would everyone else in the Order, for different reasons. To hell with them all. They own his duty, but Remus will never again let them own his mind, for better or for worse. He kisses Sirius deeply, then begins drawing him toward the bedroom. Sirius hesitates for just a moment, until Remus whispers, "Trust me."
"I do," Sirius says. "I do."
And if we
find ourselves inhabited by winter,
the mind's blank sky branching nowhere,
snow the best the cold heart can hope for,
buried under time's fraying comforter,
hand on naked back or thigh on thigh
can send us south into the middle of July.
-- Ron Wallace