“Hey, it’s Lily and James Planter--”
“And Harry. Anyway, we’re not here to take your call right now. Leave your name and number and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible. Bye…”
“It’s me – I mean, it’s Remus. Sirius is...he’s out. Okay. Bye. I’ll call – I mean, we’ll call. Bye.”
“The number you have reached is not available at the moment. Please leave a message after the tone.”
“Hey, McGonagall, it’s James. I just wanted to give you a heads up. I’ve heard from Remus – Sirius got parole. If you could pass on the info to Dumbledore, that’d be much appreciated. I’m sure – I mean, I know we’ll be talking soon.”
“You’ve got the Prewett brothers. Press one for Fab, two for Gid, and three if you’re trying to hire us for your shady, ill-conceived revenge plots. Which we assume is the reason you called this number because people don’t call this number unless that’s what they’re after – or maybe they were trying to call that pizza place, or maybe you’re trying to get into Gid’s pants, which isn’t unlikely considering all--”
“Hey Fab, it’s Caradoc. I heard from Emmeline who was talking to Shacklebolt who was talking to Arthur who was talking to Ted Tonks whose wife just got a call from Sirius: he’s been sprung. I expect we’ll get a call from Remus soon; and when we do…well, I’m in if you are. I suppose you can bring your brother. Also, are you and I still going to see that film tomorrow night? I’m not having Chinese before again. We always have Chinese.”
The sky is grey and sleepy and Remus Lupin turns up the collar of his coat to fend off a non-existent wind. It makes him look shifty—and, more importantly, vulnerable. In front of him is a folding table. On the table there are three cards. Between the grey of the day, the black of Remus’ coat, and the wet chalk colour of the pavement, the red-printed cards look vulgar, cheap.
There is a crowd gathered around the table, and Remus glances up and catches the eye of a rake thin man in his late forties, greying hair and a cheap business suit. Remus flashes him a shy kind of smile, and as the man’s gaze catches on Remus’, glued to that mesmerising liquid-honey-gold, Remus’ hands briefly caress the cards.
“So,” he asks, turning to the girl in the front of the crowd, “Queen of my heart, can you follow the queen of hearts?”
This gets him a low murmur of laughter. Remus picks up the cards. They feel slick and cool in his hands like the scales of a snake. His hands fit around them well -- they were made to cup the painted faces of kings.
“Here she is,” he says, showing the Queen, “And here are the other cards. Can you confirm I have here a Queen and two black aces?”
“Yes,” she giggles.
He sets them down and then flips them up, showing their positions on the table. Then he begins to shuffle their places on the table; he doesn’t throw the Queen, and he lets the girl win. It’s easier to play Three Card Monte with a few shills, he supposes, but he likes the challenge of pitting marks against each other -- greed feeding greed. He’s only playing because he’s bored, anyway. Maybe some people get thrills repelling down cliff faces – Remus gets his from a slight of hand.
The girl picks the right card, and Remus lets her take her five-dollar bet. She plays a part as well as anyone in on the game could have. Remus’ true mark shuffles a little closer to the table.
“Okay, lets have some real money now. Anyone? You look like a man with quick eyes,” Remus says to the mark. The man hesitates, and then he nods.
Lily always tells Remus that she’s never seen anyone who can get people to fall for a game as quickly as Remus can. Remus doesn’t know why it surprises her -- he’s a details man. He’s always been a details man. Other men would have kept the collar of their coat down—and that’s where they broke their game; the second his mark thought Remus could get a chill, he thought he could beat him.
Any failings Remus has as a con man don’t come from a lack of finesse. What Remus doesn’t do well is have the big ideas. And how useful is a details man if he doesn’t have an ideas man anyway? Then the only place his train of thought has to go is straight to Sirius. Remus closes his eyes as if hiding from his own thoughts. Sometimes, when he starts missing Sirius, he gets an ache beneath his breastbone that hurts so much it makes his eyes sting with tears.
“Follow the lady,” Remus says softly, rubbing absently at the phantom pain in his chest. Giving the mark a last little sideways grin, Remus slides the cards over top of each other on the table, just fast enough that the man is sure he knows exactly where every card is. He throws the queen right at the end, slipping one hand over the other and tossing the top card to the middle of the table instead of the bottom card.
The man puts his money on the middle card.
Remus shakes his head sadly as he flips the card. “Sorry,” he says, “I’m afraid that’s not the one.”
“Damn,” the man grumbles. He folds his hands into his pockets protectively. Remus is sure he won’t get another bet out of the man, so he scans the small gathering of on-lookers for someone looking a little too eager. He glances away a moment, shuffling and reshuffling the three cards in his hand.
When he looks up, there is a new man at the front of the table, appearing out of nowhere to sling his arm companionably around the mark. All the breath rushes out of Remus’s lungs in a whoosh. He has to clench his jaw to keep from madly grinning.
What he wants to do is throw his arms around Sirius and bury his face into his shoulder – suddenly safe in a way no other thing on earth can make him feel. He wants Sirius’s soft mouth pressed under his jaw just like he did for that last fleeting moment they touched, before Sirius’s wry sharp smile was lost to him behind a mirrored police car door.
Sirius tilts his head just to the side, and Remus forcefully sucks air into his lungs. He knows that expression almost too well. With Sirius, he has to remember that everything is an opportunity for a game.
Sirius murmurs something into the man’s ear, and Remus already knows what he’s saying, like how he knows everything Sirius says and thinks and does when they’re pulling a con. The sudden comfort of having a partner rushes down Remus’ spine like a shot of morphine, a warm, sweet slide of weightlessness.
Remus studies Sirius as he talks the mark into betting again; Sirius is wearing a suit and tie; they look new or crisply ironed. The bag slung over his shoulder is the one he had with him when he was arrested, and Remus is sure that the clothes he was arrested in – one of Remus’ oversized random folk band t-shirts and a his favourite worn jeans -- are shoved haphazardly in the bottom of the bag. He looks just a little bit too thin and though Sirius is naturally pale, his skin is more sallow than ivory. There are tiny lines around his eyes and mouth that Remus doesn’t remember. His hair is to too long. Trust Sirius to convince the prison guards not to cut it. It’s not that Sirius likes his hair long or short, necessarily, but Remus is sure Sirius made an effort to control anything he could while on the inside.
On the surface, there is nothing wrong with Sirius that can’t be fixed with a few months of sleep in a decent bed, and real food. He’d never thought Sirius was the kind of man who would be broken by prison so easily. Now Remus isn’t sure. After all, a lot more went wrong four years back than just Sirius getting thrown into jail.
“I’ll bet first, how ‘bout that?” Sirius declares. He pauses, “Okay, okay, how much should I put down?”
Remus shuffles the bills he’s collected in his hand until the tens are on top and then spreads them across the table. The mark’s eyes catch on the one and the zero. Oh, how Remus loves the power of suggestion.
“If you bet a hundred and win,” says the man, “I’ll match it.”
“A hundred!” Sirius asks, eyes going wide. He pauses and bites his lip as he examines Remus’ hands cradling the three cards. His looks hungry -- gambling men always are -- and something dark and hot unfolds in Remus’ stomach. Their eyes glance across each other for a moment. It makes Remus glad that life has led him to a point where it’s harder for him to accidentally show emotions than to drop his carefully constructed mask of indifference.
“Come on,” the mark eggs Sirius on. “You said you’d bet…. You said it’s a one in three chance no matter what.”
“I want to see the cards,” Sirius says. “Maybe he cheats.”
The man’s eyes darken suddenly, and Remus has to remind himself that Sirius knows what he is doing.
“I am deeply offended, sir. I do not cheat. Cheating is for men who have no skill,” Remus says. His holds the cards for one more moment, and then he nods sharply. He looks at the mark when he says: “I hope you two know this is not something I’d do for just anyone.”
When Sirius takes his cards from Remus, their fingers brush briefly and the shock of pleasure that rushes up Remus’ arm stands all his hair on end. He swallows shallowly. Four years, he thinks, I’ve forgotten what desire feels like.
Sirius and the man examine the cards for a moment and Sirius leans close enough to whisper into Remus’ ear when gives them back. He smells good and dangerous, like leather or maybe lightning in the desert. He doesn’t say anything but Remus knows the kinds of things he would murmur and it’s enough.
Remus lays the cards out reverently and taps the Queen, “The lady is here. Can you follow her?”
He’s quicker this time – a lot quicker. In Three Card Monte, the eyes are always faster than hands, but Remus knows that people get nervous when he goes too fast, and they stop believing they can follow the card. In a confidence trick, the mark has to have confidence in themselves as much as in the operator. He doesn’t worry about this with Sirius, though. The harder he makes it look for Sirius, the more likely it is for the mark to believe he can win, when Sirius inevitably does.
He’s about to lay the cards our flat when, impulsively, he throws the Queen. It’s a good throw. There’s no possible way Sirius could tell from watching that the top card from his hand is now on the right and the Queen on the left. He feels stupid the second he’s done it, but he doesn’t want to give it away by looking down. He’s too curious.
Sirius studies the cards for a moment, “Were you paying attention?” Sirius asks the mark.
The man shakes his head, “It’s your bet, man.”
Sirius unfolds a single hundred-dollar bill from his pocket. The small crowd leans in – anticipation thick in the air.
He puts the bill on the Queen. “I think that’s it.”
“No way,” someone from the crowd mutters. “Come on, it’s there on the right.”
“Are you sure?” Remus says, quietly.
“I’m sure I want this one,” Sirius replies. His voice has some level of seriousness beyond the words. Remus desperately wants to reach out and touch him; his chest feels tight and full of awe. Sirius knows him this well. Well enough to guess he’d switch the cards when even Remus hadn’t known until he’d been halfway through the motions.
Remus flips the card, and the crowd murmurs excitedly.
When the mark puts down his hundred dollars, he looses it. That’s the game, after all. Most of the crowd wanders away, leaving only the man grumbling angrily down at the cards; Sirius pats his arm consolingly.
“I want to check the cards again,” Sirius says. “There’s no way that wasn’t right.”
Remus raises an eyebrow, wondering what Sirius is up too now. His eyes are dove grey in the faded afternoon light. They capture Remus as surely as a moth in a glass jar.
Sirius lets his fingers rest briefly against the pulse point at Remus’ wrist as he takes the cards this time. His lips look dry and full and Remus want to lick them open. He fans the cards. No cheat is revealed. Remus’ mark shrugs.
Sirius isn’t done though, he leans impossibly close to Remus and, gently, he slips his hand into the collar of Remus’ coat, brushing his hand against the tender skin of Remus’ neck. Remus feels his carefully schooled expression of confusion waver into want, for just a second.
“Well, well, well...” Sirius says, husky and low against the shell of Remus' ear. The fine hairs at his temple brush across Sirius's mouth as he breathes in. “What have we here?”
He holds up two fingers. The Ace of Hearts is between them.
“Hey,” the mark says. “Hey, man, you must have been cheating with that.”
Remus ignores him, enthralled by Sirius as he is. “That isn't mine,” he whispers to Sirius.
Sirius smiles at him, a slow curve of red lips, “Well that depends on what you mean by yours. If you’re asking if this is yours, then yes. But if you’re asking if it belongs to me…then the answer to that is also yes.”
Remus slides backwards a little, so that Sirius becomes a whole face, instead of magnified pieces (mouth, cheekbones, eyelashes). He looks him sharply, and suddenly they're laughing at each other. “What a line, Sirius.”
“It was a good one, huh?” He replies, as he collects the deck of cards off the table and shifts them into his pockets.
“Shall we?” Remus asks, seeing that the table is now bare. The mark is still watching them with an expression halfway between irate and baffled.
“Let's,” Sirius replies.
They disperse into the bustling crowds like smoke, and the mark is left, hands tightening and clutching at nothing, with a naked table and one-hundred and fifty dollars less to his name.
The night is dark like black coffee when Remus slides his key into his apartment door and tugs Sirius in after him; Sirius slams it shut so he can shove Remus against it. His mouth is hot and soft against Remus neck, kissing the places he whispered against hours before. When he pulls away for a second, Remus makes a hurt sound in the back of his throat and tugs back quickly with shaking hands, pushing their mouths together again.
“Hey, hey, Moony,” Sirius murmurs, soothingly. “I'm just undoing your coat.”
“Sorry,” Remus says. “I know, I just...I just...”
Sirius holds his gaze. In the twilight of the flat, their features are smoothed out and cast only in shades of silver and black. Remus is sure that the night is their colour. He feels as close to beautiful as he ever could, with Sirius watching him so intently. They both know what he is trying to say. He hates and loves Sirius for making him voice it.
“I missed you Sirius. It was too much. I really, really missed you.”
Sirius folds Remus into his arms, holding him tightly, chastely. Remus always feels smaller than Sirius when he is held this way. He likes it.
“Okay,” he says gently, “I missed you too. Just…just…it’s okay…”
They lean against the door there for a long time, breathing the same slow breaths until Remus is smiling at the edges of his mouth again.
“Do you remember the third job we pulled together?” Sirius says quietly. He tugs Remus into the bedroom. It smells the same -- it's not even the same house, but it still smells the same, like any bedroom Remus has ever occupied does. He sits on the bed and unlaces his shoes.
“Of course,” Remus replies. He removes his coat lazily, fingers catching on each button. “The Citibank job, out on Long Island. James, Andromeda, the Prewetts—Frank, before he left the business.”
“Remember how you got Frank’s girlfriend, Alice, to pretend to be your wife, in order to get the security code for the vaults?”
“Sure...” Remus says. He remembers how small and awkward it felt to tuck Alice's petite body under his arm, wishing for someone else to be there instead. He remembers the liquid heat of adrenaline as he spun a story for the bank manager. He remembers marvelling at how people treated him, dressed carefully in an ironed linen suit and dark glasses – it was shocking; scruffy, all of nineteen—practically still living on the street and suddenly he knew he had every opportunity – it was only a con away.
He remembers the party after the job: splayed out on the fire escape outside Fabian Prewett’s crap apartment, sharing a glass of the most expensive champagne Remus had ever been in the same room with. He hadn't known Sirius back then, not like he does now anyway. He had only known he wanted him.
“I knew I was in love with you right then. I saw you tuck Alice under your arm, and I was so suddenly jealous -- I could barely breath. You cupped your hand under her elbow like you did with me sometimes, and I wanted that gesture to only be mine.”
Remus smiles. “Do you remember what you said to me, that night, on the fire escape?”
“I said...that you were good at pretending to be with Alice, like that – I said we were all half convinced, how easy you were with her, and I said maybe I was a little jealous.”
“Do you remember what I said back?”
“You said, 'It's easy if I pretend she's you.' And you wouldn't look at me in the eye, so I kissed you. That was the first time, wasn't it?”
“Not the last though.” Remus laughs against Sirius's lips, small, and he can feel Sirius's eyelashes catching against his own.
“Come on,” Sirius says, gently, sliding across the covers like the feel of clean cotton is sinfully good. Remus smiles moves across him. In each other, they find themselves again – those missing parts the years of separation stole away from them. Small things like the light in their eyes, but also big, necessary things, like an untouchable confidence (the kind men like Remus and Sirius really can't do without). They are against each other or with each other, skin and skin, and hands and hands, and mouth and mouth. They come apart against each other.
In the early hours of the morning, Remus wakes. Sirius is watching him. Already, he looks different than when he found Remus on the street the day before – closer to the man he was before he left.
“Alright,” Remus says, as Sirius brushes a few strands of hair from his face. “First we need some French toast, and then I want to know what your plan is, because if there is one thing Sirius Black always has, it's a plan.”
“What?” Sirius says, slow and coy. “No pillow talk?”
Remus laughs at him as he rolls out of the bed. “For you, that is pillow talk.”
The warehouse is dark and silent until Remus flicks the lights on and Sirius comes through the doors tugging a chalkboard behind him, and pushing a case of cheap wine in front of him with one foot.
Remus lugs the folding chairs from the van inside and watches the line of Sirius’ back change as he scrawls messily across the board Good Morning Class. Remus sets up the chairs in a loose circle and then crosses to Sirius, catching his wrists and turning him gently till his back touches the green slate, smudging letters slightly. Sirius leans into his kiss, meeting him halfway. A cough echoes from the other side of the workshop and Remus separates from Sirius lingeringly.
“Black,” James says, covering the yards of dusty concrete towards them in lengthening strides. “Black, it’s fucking good to see you again.”
“James!” Sirius crows, brushing past Remus gently, and cracking a grin Remus remembers well. The same expression is on James’ face. They hug each other one-armed but tight and affectionate, all big and gangly and not so different from the seventeen year old lost souls Remus first knew them as.
“Potter, how’s the wife? How’s my godson? Haven’t corrupted them too far yet, I hope.”
“Lily was corrupted before I ever got to her, and you know it,” he replies laughing. “And it’s Planter now. Can’t let that one slip. Hagrid will kill me if I ask him to do us another lot of birth certificates. He says I use up twice as much ink as any of the rest of his clients.”
“I expect you’ll soon exhaust the list of vocational careers beginning with the letter ‘P’, anyway,” Sirius adds. Remus sees Lily come in through the door. Harry is settled against her hip, yawning sleepily, and Remus goes to take him from her so she can press a kiss to Sirius’s cheek and hug him tightly, fitting her peace into all Sirius’s ragged corners like a sister.
“How was prison?” James asks.
Sirius smiles wryly. “Lonely,” he answers, and they all hear that terrible seed of truth. Remus crosses to Sirius, still holding Harry and swipes his thumb over Sirius’ hip. Harry squirms in Remus’ arms as Sirius meets his eyes gratefully.
“I’m afraid I don’t recognize you anymore, sir,” Sirius says, leaning towards Harry. “How old are you now, hmmm? Fifteen? Twenty-seven? Eighty?”
“I’m five,” Harry announces with grave importance. “And mommy says that you’re like my uncle and that when I was a baby you took me to the zoo three times, and daddy says you’ll buy me ice cream but that I can’t tell mommy because she’ll say I can’t have so much sugar.”
“All of these things and more are true, Harry,” Sirius says, standing next to Remus so he can shift Harry from Remus’ hips to Sirius’.
There’s more commotion at the door to the warehouse as three more people appear. Two have matching grins and hair exactly the same shade of auburn hair, though one of them is whippet thin and the other is as broad as a railroad worker across the shoulders. Trailing behind them like a put-upon nanny is a tall pale man with a sweep of dark hair and a red mouth.
“Black, Lupin, and the Planters!” the broad one announces upon spotting them, “Oh the gang’s all here. It’s excellent to see you again, I must say--”
“Gideon and I were absolutely bored out of our minds without you. Smuggling frankincense and myrrh across the Egyptian border just isn’t what it used to be. We need a real job.” The thin one finishes.
“Still hanging around with these oafs, Caradoc?” Remus asks pleasantly.
“Unfortunately,” the pale man replies, “I seem to be stuck with them. You know how it is with those two. Fab says I keep his toes warm at night, and Gid says he needs someone to side with him in arguments. I vouch for the boredom. They’ve been a nightmare since you got locked up. I’ve twelve more passports than I did the last time I saw you.”
“That’s exactly as it should be,” Sirius cut in imperiously. “Now we’re only waiting on three.”
“Three?” Remus asked, “It’s only McGonagall and Mad-Eye.”
“No,” Sirius said, looking a little sour. “I’ve gotta do something for Andromeda. Her daughter wants in on the business. I told her a long time ago that I’d break her in and she’s calling the favour in now.”
“Who is the kid? Is she good?” James asked.
“She’s only twenty-one. Were we good when we were twenty-one?”
“Sure,” James said.
“No we weren’t,” Remus says. “What we had was potential.”
“That’s what she has,” Sirius said, smiling wryly. “She has potential.”
Tonks counts cards. Plus two. She holds the number in her thoughts carefully. It’s hot in the casino and she pulls at the silk of her dress. The man beside her sees her touch her bra strap and he picks up his glass, clinking the two ice cubes together. She sees the way he blinks at her long legs and forgets where he is for just a moment. Plus two she thinks.
“Hello!” says a man, out of nowhere suddenly crashing into the card table and draping himself between Tonks and the man beside her. His hair is raven black. It’s a good haircut. His suit also looks expensive, but it’s rumpled, and his collar is messy. His tie pin flashes gold in the corner of her vision and before she can help herself, her fingers reach out and pluck it off, secreting it into the dark of her pocket. He smells like gin.
“Oh, this looks nice,” the man says, slumping forward onto the table.
“Sir,” says the Dealer sharply. He jolts back up. “Sorry, sorry,” he says, “I said I was only going to have one glass of wine, and then, well, you know how it goes.” He laughs uproariously, and Tonks shifts away from him, feeling the grime of the man’s sweat under her fingernails.
“Sir,” the Dealer repeats, with a serious threat now lingering on the edge of her voice.
“Oh, I was just going, sorry, sorry.” Just as the man extracts his arm from her shoulders he turns his head slightly, and their gazes catch. His eyes are sharp and grey and magnetic, almost familiar for some strange reason. Something about it makes her feel as if a bucket of water has been upended over her head. She breathes in sharply.
Feeling a little shaken, she leans down to grab her purse from the ground. It’s gone. Instead there is only a folding square of paper. She stands up glancing after the man, but he’s disappeared, just absolutely absent from the crowds.
“Oh my god,” she says to the man next to her, “That jerk just stole my purse.”
But of course they’ll never catch him, she thinks, remembering that shocking intelligence in his gaze.
Later, when she’s in the bathroom staring at her reflection and angry at her ignorance, she unfolds the piece of paper. One side says You lost the count. It wasn’t plus two anymore. The other side gives an address and a time and beneath that, in tiny lettering, Bring my tie pin with you. It’s my favourite one.
James is telling the story of the Fenton Job when the new girl shows up. She doesn’t look nervous but she does look like she’s trying too hard. Sirius has just gone out to the van to lug the blueprints inside, and so there’s nothing tell her she’s in the right place. Remus half smiles, taking pity on her.
“You’re Andromeda’s daughter, right?” he says, standing from his chair and offering it to her. “I’m Remus.”
She looks up at him with widening eyes, “Does that mean the guy in the casino was Black? Is this…is he pulling me in on a job?”
Remus brings the other half of his mouth up into a full grin. Anyone who’s anyone in the business knows that if Remus gives you a call, you’re a shoe in with Black, and there isn’t anything like being on one of his jobs. Remus is glad that Sirius’ reputation hasn’t dulled too much in four years.
“Your mom suggested we bring you in,” he says. “You know how Black family outcasts stick together, I’m sure.”
“Oh,” she says, the light in her eyes fading a little, “Just a family connection, then?”
Remus puts his hand on her shoulder and she ducks her head at the touch, “Sirius doesn’t take people he thinks are useless, Nymphadora.”
“Please,” she says, glancing at him through the fringe of her eyelashes. “You can call me Tonks.”
“So what’s the plan, then,” Mad-Eye growls, chewing on the blackening end of a toothpick with angry ferocity.
“It’s ambitious,” Sirius precludes, “But…it’s also beautiful,”
“Eh, eh…” Mad-Eye says, probably sensing the monologue Sirius is about to work himself into. Remus can already see the resigned flat gazes of the other seven people assembled in a circle on their folding chairs. They’re all set to watch a half-hour show of typical Sirius rambling poetically about the art of thievery. Remus himself is in leaning against an over turned crate next to the chalkboard, which now reads Good Morning Minions. Sirius stands in the middle of the group, as though the warehouse is an amphitheatre. “Cut the crap,” Mad-Eye finishes.
“Fine, fine,” Sirius says. He looks over-exposed around his edges, more alive than even before he went to prison and a little painfully excited. Remus wonders if these things are only visible to him, or if they’re also visible to people like James, who has known Sirius as his brother as long as Remus has known him as the love of his life, or if everyone sees that Sirius is running on something more vibrant and electric than whatever flesh and blood the rest of them contain.
“The plan is simple,” Sirius says. “We take down Hotel Voldemort. We’re going to break Tom Riddle. We’ll be rich with his downfall.”
Sirius has been in prison for three months before Remus goes to visit him. Sirius always said he didn’t want Remus to visit him while he ‘acclimated’ to prison. He understands why when he sees Sirius on the other side of that Plexiglas wall. He looks blurry, but it’s not the inches of bulletproof glass between them that make him so. He’s washed out and tired and the vivacity that draws Remus to him and pins Remus at Sirius’ side is all but gone.
Remus loves him with a surge of throat-aching panic anyway. Remus has never been violent, but he can imagine punching the guard in the corner of the room and kicking at the door he stands in front of until it springs open with perfect detail. Sirius doesn’t fit here. Remus wants him out. He can imagine how much more it would hurt to watch the slow descent of Sirius to ghost, instead of only seeing the finished product.
The first thing Sirius says when Remus picks up the phone connecting their voices is “I love you.”
He’s never said it before. It was always there between them of course. The kind of thing you know the same way you know you can always visit Florida next year because it’s not going anywhere, or that you should really take back those overdue library books.
“You aren’t thinking of killing yourself are you?” Remus asks. It’s not the right thing to say, but he can’t think of any other reason Sirius would say it now, just like that.
Sirius laughs a little anyway, gruff “No,” he says, “But I spend the greater majority of my time laying alone and thinking, and one thing I thought about was that I should tell you I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Remus replies.
Sirius sighs into the phone. “I’d like to kiss you right now,” he says.
Remus looks down at Sirius hands. There are two new small scars. The kind you’d get from punching someone in the face very hard. Remus thinks about all the bruises Sirius might have now and has to stop for fear he might not be able to breath. “I’d like to take you home,” Remus says.
“When I’m out of here, I’m taking Riddle down, Moony,” Sirius says, voice suddenly fixed carefully flat.
“We can’t go after Riddle. Peter will have told him exactly how we work, they’ll know all our tricks, and they’ll be expecting it.”
“I can’t let it go. I can’t. The man…” Sirius squeezes his eyes shut, “He tore apart my family and he tried to ruin my reputation as an honourable con and he gave us up to the law and he fucking killed my brother, Remus. He killed Regulus. I have to ruin him.”
Remus leans on his elbows and sets his forehead against the window. He drops the phone, and Sirius mimics him, so they lean together, separated only by a few inches of glass.
“So what do you propose to do?” Remus mouths.
“Like I said,” Sirius mouths back, “I’ve got a lot of time for thinking these days.”
“Riddle will recognize me, and probably Remus, James and Lily, and he knows I just got sprung and that I want revenge. We’re going to use it to our advantage. We’re running two games side by side. The first con will be pulled just by the four of us – we’ll do it well enough that he can’t arrest us, but predictably enough that he can follow it all. It’s gotta be showy. We want him watching.”
“The second takes all of us. That one is the real con. That’s the one we make money on, and that’s the one that will ruin him.”
Mr Riddle wakes up at exactly seven thirty every morning. This morning is no different. He collects his paper from the coffee table where it appears silently with a coffee. He reads the front-page articles, and whatever items in the business section have been circled in red pen as of a particular interest to him. He eats half a grapefruit, a bowl of muesli and runs on a treadmill for sixteen minutes.
At eight thirty he showers and puts on one of twenty-three bespoke suits. He smokes a cigarette on the bedroom balcony. By nine o’clock he’s at the front desk to smile falsely at the head receptionist. She tells him if any high rollers have either booked in or just arrived. Sometimes, the receptionist recommends that he read a particular novel she’s just finished. Mr Riddle does try, but he can’t always keep the disdainful sneer from his face.
At nine-thirty the head of security briefs him on the walk down to check on the vaults. He would like to count his money personally every day, but Mr Riddle simply has too much of it. The head statistician then ensures that the casino is making the amount of money it should be. Chance is still in their favour. He then retires to his office where he looks around for Bellatrix, whom he usually fucks across the back of the desk at this time of day. He likes to touch her wedding band to remind her of her husband. She shifts underneath him as he does it and he knows there is still a little guilt pumping up her veins. It makes him feel good to twist and pick at the hurt. Today, she isn’t waiting for him, and never appears, which makes him distantly annoyed.
At noon Pettigrew comes in with some business, whatever he has to take care of for the day. Pettigrew is such an idiot it takes longer than it should, but he’s a useful idiot because he’s loyal. Depending on when this has finished, Mr Riddle goes to sit in the Overlord Bar and look down on the casino. When someone wins, he grinds his teeth together. His dentist says he’ll have to wear something at night if he keeps doing it. Mr Riddle doesn’t mind; if he uses these teeth up he’ll just buy some better ones.
He is very busy grinding his teeth when there is a whisper of silk as someone takes their coat off and drops it over the back of the other chair at Mr Riddle’s table. The lining of the jacket is rich indigo.
“Tom,” says the man as he sits down at the table. Mr Riddle raises his eyes slowly.
“Sirius Black,” he says, slowly. “I hope it’s not too much of a disappointment if I tell you that I’m not at all surprised.”
“No, no,” Sirius says, grinning sweetly, “You could never disappoint me, Tom.”
“What can I do for you, Mr Black,” Mr Riddle says, steepling his fingers over his glass of wine.
“The real issue here, Tom,” Sirius says as he stands, “Is what I intend to do for you.”
Mr Riddle’s jaw aches. Sirius takes his jacket and walks away. Mr Riddle means to watch him as he leaves, to call in and tell security to throw him out of the hotel, but he can’t remember what Black was wearing and as the crowds shift, Mr Riddle looses sight of him.
It’s almost six o’clock now. Saturday night in the middle of August. It’s the kind of night that usually makes him millions. There’s something that Riddle can taste in the, air, though. He’d like to retire to his rooms. On the floor below there is a flash of dark violet, and Mr Riddle tracks the spray of colour before losing it again. Something on the air. It’s the kind of night that can make or break a man.
His secretary is sorting through papers on her desk when he walks past later. She’s worked for him for fifteen years, but he can’t remember her name. He points to her instead, to get her attention. “Sir?” she asks.
“Bring up anything we have on Sirius Black. Send it to my office. And while you’re at it send me my files on Remus Lupin and James and Lily Potter.”
“So what are we stealing then – and what are you stealing?”
“You’re breaking in to the vaults. Riddle likes everything simple and easy to hoard. Everything the casino makes in a night, and all the money to back up the percentage of chips required is in the same safe. Under the floor of the safe are ledgers, which we also need you to bring along.”
“Yes. They’re the most important part.”
“And what are you stealing?”
“Exactly what I said. It’s of particular sentimental value to me, and it’s Riddle’s most prized possession.”
“Why are we doing this again?” Gideon asks, voice echoing and bouncing oddly off the metal walls of the heating vents. Tonks is farther ahead; being smaller than Gideon is in several directions, it’s not so difficult for her to slide through the crawl space.
“The magnets have to be placed on the outside of the vault as well as the inside, otherwise the EMP pulse won’t negate the doors on the system,” Remus offers.
“And now remind me why couldn’t we just use the elevator shafts?” He sounds breathless like a man near suffocation.
From behind, Remus replies, “The elevator system is designed like a labyrinth to confuse potential thieves, whereas the vents are laid out like a city grid. The assumption is that no one who’s strong enough to open the grates at the end of the tunnels could also fit through the smaller tunnels up ahead. Luckily, they didn’t take into account butter.”
“Oh no,” Gideon says, freezing and doing his best to shift around to glare at Remus, “I knew I should have asked you what was in that shopping bag. You are absolutely not allowed to coat me in butter and shove me through an air vent. No.”
“You’re the only one of us strong enough to open the grate, Gid.”
“Yeah, Gid…” Tonks calls back to them, “I’m so eager to see you all oiled up and doing heavy lifting.”
Remus laughs a little behind them. “See, I’ll even let Tonks do the butter if you’d like.”
“Well she sure fits right in to the lets-destroy-Gideon’s-life club, didn’t she,” Gideon grumbles and scoots himself a few more feet down the shaft.
When Gideon finally knocks the grate open, Remus and Tonks drop down to the floor. “Your turn, Tonks.” Remus whispers, glancing down the corridor. The voices of the two vault guards can be heard faintly from around the corner. Tonks’ face twists suddenly with a hint of doubt. “You look absolutely ravishing,” he promises her, smiling kindly. “You won’t have an ounce of trouble.”
Tonks flushes softly making her cheekbones appear delicate and high. The natural blush is a contrast to the slinky red feather dress and lurid lipstick she wears. She turns away from him and starts off down the hall, rounding the corner. Just as she is out of view, Remus starts off after her. He stops when he can hear her conversation with the guards perfectly.
“Hey,” says the first of the two, “You don’t look like you should be down here, have you got ID?”
“ID?” Tonks asks innocently, edging on vapid. “What do I need ID for? I’m Lucinda. I dance in Club Horcrux. Isn’t this the marketing office? I’m supposed to do photos for the promotional posters.”
“Honey, you have made a serious wrong turn somewhere,” the second guard says, sounding a little sleazy. “The marketing office is three floors above this one. You can’t even get down here without a badge.”
“Oh,” Tonks says. Remus cranes his neck around the corner just enough to see that Tonks is ducking her head ashamedly. “I don’t know. I just pressed the button in the elevator, and this is where it took me.”
“Damn,” the first guard says, “It’s the new IT guy, probably. I always say you shouldn’t trust a man with a glass eye. He’s clearly a nut case. He probably set the whole thing malfunctioning. Jim, can you remember the codes? I’ve forgotten them.”
“That IT guy shouldn’t have access to this part of the building,” Jim says.
Tonks giggles, “Maybe it was just an accident. Could you fix it? I need to get up to the office.”
“We’ll see what we can do.”
Their footsteps start to fade as they walk away from Remus down the hall away from Remus. He hears the sound of the elevator being called, then their voices cut off as the elevator doors slide shut. Remus sprints down the hall and stops in front of the innocuous door the guards were watching over.
He slides a plain key James had spent three days carefully plotting to steal into the door. On the other side is a huge safe door, black and stark and dripping with mechanisms. Remus digs in his pocket and pulls out four small round metal bolts and evenly spaces them around the safe code pad. Then he turns, locks the plain door and bolts back down the hallway just as the elevator doors begin to slide back open with a pleasant ding.
“When I say to you that these jewels are priceless, Madam,” McGongall says, one hand on the lithe tortoiseshell cat perched on her lap. “I am not being hyperbolic. These jewels are worth more money than this casino will ever make.”
“Miss McGrady, I understand that your possessions are very important to you, but unfortunately I cannot offer them a place in the casino’s main vault. Only items personally approved by Mr Riddle are allowed there.”
“Do you know who you are speaking to, you impetuous girl?”
“I am the heir to the oldest and most noble family in Scotland. I am the product of thousands of years of blue blood. I am the cousin of Kings and Queens, and I am asking that you place my possessions, which were once part of the crown jewels of Great Britain, in your measly safe. These possessions are accustomed to travelling with an accompaniment of royal guards, and you want me to deign to speak to the owner of a mere hotel. I have power and I intend to use it, if necessary.”
“I’ll see what I can do Miss McGrady,” the receptionist pinches the bridge of her nose tiredly and then picks up the phone at the side of the desk.
“Johnny,” she says, “Hi, yeah, it’s Susie. Look, I know this is against protocol, but the McGrady family wants to hold something down in the big vault. I know you’re taking some cash machines down later. Could you bring this along too? Thanks….No, yeah, sure….I owe you.”
McGonagall pulls her lips into a thin, regal smile.
“You’re in luck, Miss McGrady. Someone will be up to collect your jewels in a moment.”
“Why, thank you ever so much, my dear.”
McGonagall clicks open the case the supposed jewels are stored in. She adjusts the egg-sized amethyst and topaz and, subtly, the four small round metal bolts resting beneath the velvet lining.
“Hi, yes, my name is James Planter and I’m interested in renting a helicopter. The smallest model you have, most likely.”
“Yes, that sounds perfect. Tell me, would it be capable of carrying, say, a grand piano? In an air lift fashion, I mean.”
“That’s great. Yeah, sure...yeah, we’ll take it.”
“The most important key to your success is dealing with the Death Eaters.”
“That sounds grim. Death Eaters?”
“You must know of them – they’re Riddle’s inner circle.”
“So who are these people?”
“There are a lot of them, but you only need to worry about Lucius Malfoy, Bellatrix Lestrange, Fenrir Greyback, Peter Pettigrew and Severus Snape. Now, Snape is not so loyal as the others; most of our inside info comes from him, but he and I do not get along particularly well, to say the least, so I’d steer clear.”
“And how do we deal with them?”
“Lily, James, Remus and I will take that, allowing you to complete your various tasks undisturbed. Except, we’ll have to work around Peter. He’s been playing right hand man, and Riddle will notice if he disappears. We know Peter’s tricks, though.”
“Narcissa?” Lily asks, her hand on the top of Harry’s head. It’s growing dark, and Lily’s a little out of breath from running half way across the parking lot to catch up with Lucius Malfoy’s wife.
“Sorry, do I know you?” she asks. The words are rude, but her voice is pleasant, and inquisitive. She’s strapping a small blond boy into a car seat in the back of the car.
“Indirectly,” Lily says, twisting her mouth down into a nervous half smile. “Some of my family knows some of your family, if you understand my meaning.”
“Oh,” Narcissa says tightly, turning away. She frowns and finishes buckling her son into his seat. Harry glances up at Lily and then to the boy. He stretches away from Lily’s grasp and leans against the car door. “What’s your name?” he asks seriously.
“Draco,” says the boy, “What’s yours?”
“Harry. I’m five,” he offers.
“Me too!” Draco crows, as though this coincidence is one to rival fateful meetings from all history. “Do you like Transformers?”
“Yeah,” Harry says. “I got an Optimus Prime at home.”
Narcissa turns away from the boys, after looking down at Harry with an oddly wistful twist to her mouth. “Look. I don’t know what you mean by coming over to my son and me here, but I do my best to stay out of my husband’s business. I want no part in it for my family, and if you continue to bother me, I will perceive it as a threat.”
“Oh, that’s not what I meant at all! Oh dear!” Lily says, looking fearful and apologetic. “I know exactly what you mean…. I mean, it’s the same way for me. That’s why I’ve come to talk to you. My husband…mentioned something the other day. Your name came up. The question of your safety came up.”
“I am not gaining confidence in you,” Narcissa says, shortly.
“I’m sorry. Just please listen. I’m not supposed to be here, but I knew you had a little boy, and I couldn’t bear to see a child hurt in the course of… business. I just wanted to warn you that Vegas isn’t a good place for your family the next few days. If I were you, I would convince your husband of the need for a vacation, and I would leave. It’s exactly what I intend to do.”
Narcissa stares hard at Lily and the minute stretches long and tight. She lets out a sad breath finally, and opens the door to her seat. She presses her hand to her mouth, and Lily can see that it’s shaking just the slightest bit. “Thank you,” she says, softly. “I understand you took a risk telling me this.”
Lily nods firmly, “We mothers have to look out for each other,” she says, and leans down to pick Harry up, turning and walking away without looking back.
“Bellatrix, it’s been a long time.”
Bellatrix Lestrange does not scare easily. She never has, even before she half lost half her mind, and with it that essential part of a human that makes them care about things. The too-familiar voice from the dark corner of her suite above the Horcrux Club makes Bellatrix laugh short and high. Her stomach drops to her feet.
“Sirius?” she asks, pulling a snide mask over the nervous surface of her words. “It has been a long time. Perhaps too long. I barely recognise you.”
“You can’t see me, Bella, dear. It’s too dark. You and I always got along best in the dark. Do you remember when you taught me to play hide-and-seek at my father’s fortieth birthday party? I broke a china vase and then you taught me how to lie?”
“No,” Bellatrix replies, though she remembers. She remembers like an ice flow crashing across her back and feeling what she felt then with sudden hurt. Sirius’ young eyes wanting everything new and exciting, all the time, bright like sparks.
The heat of Sirius’ gaze on her now and in her memories makes Bellatrix almost shiver. You’re just drunk she promises herself, but the fact of the matter is that Sirius has always made her feel too much. “Tom warned me you’d come around,” she says. “He said you’d be back. I told him I didn’t think you’d show your face again. I told him: ‘Sirius is a coward and a disgrace to the Black family name, but he’s a Black nonetheless. Blacks aren’t fools.’ Tom is always right, though. I should have known.”
“To be frank, Bella, I’m not at all interested in what Riddle has to say about anything.”
“Let’s cut to the chase then, honey,” Bellatrix says, voice sickly sweet and affected. She smiles coyly into the shadows where Sirius is still just out of her sight.
“Here’s the deal,” Sirius says. “The Will…my lawyer and I discussed it recently…everything goes to you. It was supposed to go to Regulus after I was written out, and now it’s going to you and I don’t like that, not at all, but luckily for us, I’m sure we can come to some kind of understanding.”
“Oh, an understanding?” Bellatrix says, slowly. “What have you got in mind?”
“I don’t think this is the time or place. I’ve come to ask your attendance to a meeting. New York in two days. I’ve left the address. I’ll have something you want, Bella. I promise.”
There was a rustling and suddenly the room was empty again; just Bellatrix and the dark. His sudden disappearance seemed impossible. She looked around, trying to spot even the hint of an exit strategy. There didn’t seem to be anything. The only evidence that he’d been there at all was a small slip of paper with the address of an apartment in Red Hook scrawled sloppily across it.
She thought about how many ways this was not at all like something Sirius would do and how much this smelled like a bad attempt at a trap. Then she thought about how much smarter she was than Sirius and about how many things she wanted that Sirius had. If he thought he was going to play her, he had another thing coming, and she’d show him just that.
“Here’s where you’re going wrong,” Remus says, adjusting Tonks’ fingers around the face card. “You’re trying to flip them like you do when you play it clean, with only three cards, but here you have four cards. The point is to slip it up your sleeve, right?”
“Sure,” she says, distractedly, watching Remus’s fingers gentle on her wrist. “Okay.” Her voice is soft and sweeter than how she talks usually.
It’s about ten thirty, and they’re in Sirius’s suite on the fourteenth floor of The Voldemort. Lily and James are playing with Harry in the bedroom and McGonagall is having a complicated argument with Caradoc about China’s economic infrastructure. Remus is supposed to be leaving in fifteen minutes to go deal with one of Riddle’s ‘Death Eaters’ so he won’t be around to mess up the game on Saturday night.
Tonks had seen the way he glanced at the clock and at his hands and stood up on a chair and sat back down. She’d never seen Remus look nervous, and now that she had she wanted it to stop. “Teach me how to play Three Card Monte, properly. Please?” Remus had smiled obligingly and Tonks’ had made herself swallow the butterfly feeling that jumped up into her throat at the gentle curve of his lips.
“Give it another try, then,” Remus says. Tonks shuffles the cards quickly across the surface of the table preparing to slide the face card up her sleeve, but the door to the hotel room bursts open, and Remus turns away from her. Sirius is so wet with sweat that Tonks can see it drip all the way across the room.
“What the hell happened to you?” Caradoc asks.
“I had to slip out of Bellatrix’s room via the air vents, but they went right through the south boiler room,” Sirius replies, making his way towards the bathroom and shaking his dampened hair out of his eyes.
Sirius leaves the door cracked half open as he turns the shower on so he can still talk to the rest of them. Remus leans casually against the wall outside the door, like he’s used to doing just that. He listens, humming soft answers in response to Sirius’s chatter.
“Did it go alright?” he asks.
“Sure, it was fine,” Sirius replies. “Bellatrix might have been smart once, but she’s just a glorified, greedy whore now. I knew how to play her when I was a kid, and it’s only gotten easier.” The sound of shuffling and muttered curses filter out from the crack. Sirius laughs as he says, “Fuck, Moony, help me undo this zipper. Whose idea was it to wear these stupid suits anyway? We aren’t a lot of freaking ninjas.”
“They’re dashing! They’re burn proof for the air vents if they turn the heating on! They’re brilliant!” James hollers from the bedroom, defensively.
Remus pushes the door open with his foot. From where Tonks is sitting she can just make out the edge of Remus and Sirius’s reflections in the bathroom mirror. They speak quietly to each other, so that Tonks can only hear their words indistinctly. Remus unzips the back of Sirius’s long, dark, skin-tight suit with a peculiar kind of familiarity. It falls away from his skin with lazy grace. Remus brushes his thumb across the back of Sirius’s neck, slow and precise -- almost intimate. Tonks stares hard. Accident… she thinks. She can’t imagine what else it might have been. It’s not the sort of touch that happens between friends. Sirius turns around, and his face twists into something like frustration.
“You’re scared!” he says, voice raising enough so that Tonks can hear them again, “You should have told me you don’t want to deal with Greyback. Gideon could probably have done something, or even McGonagall.”
“I’m not scared,” Remus says reproachfully. “It’s too late now. I’ve sent him the letter to tell me to meet him in the parking lot ten minutes from now. And I’m not scared.”
“Oh, I can see it all over you. Look at you, you’re even biting your lip. You only ever bite your lip when you’re freaking out about something.”
“I don’t like him,” Remus says, flatly.
Sirius snorts. “Understatement of the year,” he says. “I’m coming with you.”
“You can’t come with me,” Remus says. “That would ruin the whole angle. The point is that…”
“I know the point. I do not like the point. There is no way I’m letting you go into a situation that might make you feel out of control. You know what might happen. I won’t let him see me, but I’m not sending you alone. I never wanted to and now I know I shouldn’t.”
It’s too cryptic a conversation for Tonks to even bother trying to figure out what they’re talking about. She goes out onto the balcony and looks down across the carefully manicured garden and the fountains and beyond that, the bright, hot lights of the Strip flooded with people and their money and their hunger to win something for nothing. She thinks It took me three hours to notice Remus was worried. It took Sirius thirty seconds. Not for the first time since she started the job, Tonks wishes she could understand the connections between these people. Especially that elusive line linking Sirius and Remus. Not for the first time, Tonks realises that she knows a lot less about anything than she ever thought before.
When she comes back inside, Remus and Sirius are already gone. She watches three old Jeopardy reruns, and falls asleep on the sofa.
She wakes when Remus and Sirius come back in. The clock now reads one thirty in the morning. McGonagall, Lily, and Harry are gone. Caradoc is watching the history channel, stretched out on the other sofa. Fabian has come back from doing surveillance on the head of security, Dolohov, and he’s stretched out next to Caradoc, pressing his face into the warm, dark space between the sofa cushions and Caradoc’s chest. Their legs are tangled together. James is talking softly on the phone in the door to the bedroom.
“Yeah…okay,” James is saying. “Actually,” he continues, looking up as the door cracks open, “Remus and Sirius just got back, so I’ll be over soon. Love you, Lils…. Bye”
Remus and Sirius both look wrecked. Remus’s shirt is ripped in three places, and missing every button, as though it had been torn from him. He has a split lip, and red rings around both his wrists, that look like they might bruise into finger shapes. Sirius, for his part, has the beginnings of a black eye and a spreading bruise on his chin. A scratch mark of three ragged lines across his upper arm bleed sluggishly.
“Did it not go to plan?” James asks, crossing the room and leaning down to examine the scratches on Sirius.
Remus glances at Sirius with a pointedly angry look, but there is also something about the way he holds his mouth that says he isn’t mad at all. In fact, perhaps he’s the opposite of angry.
“It went perfectly to plan, until Greyback tried to kiss me, and Sirius flipped, jumped out of the shadows, and attacked him. He was supposed to try to kiss me. That was the point.”
Sirius is making a face that Tonks would call a pout if she didn’t know Sirius well enough to expect he never pouted. She can’t help but stare at them openly. Kiss Remus? she thinks, shocked. What were they doing?
“I just couldn’t let him, Remus. He shouldn’t touch you. He’s an utter shit, and I couldn’t let him touch you.”
“You didn’t move a muscle when he ripped off my shirt and shoved me against the wall and held me there by my wrists,” Remus says, sounding exhausted, and maybe a little bemused.
Sirius sighs, and captures Remus’ hand in his own, bringing it up to face level so he can easily examine the bruising. “I didn’t want him to touch you...like…like…I touch you.”
“I know,” Remus says, softly. “But, Sirius, you knew what he’d do going in. I sent him a note that said I was dropping you to go back to him, and you knew what he was like with me back then, so I don’t see why you thought it would be different. I had it under control. I was in control.”
“Moony,” Sirius whispers, leaning his forehead against Remus’. “I know you were. I didn’t say I was being rational or that I was right. I’m just saying I couldn’t let him touch you.”
Remus smiles that little quirk of a smile that’s only ever for Sirius and presses his lips to Sirius’s cheek once, dry and chaste.
Tonks looks between the two of them frantically. What the fuck? she thinks. But Remus was… And then there isn’t any way to finish that thought, because he wasn’t hers, if that’s what she wanted. He wasn’t hers at all. She’d clearly not understood anything, not even the slightest bit. She looks to James, and then to Fabian and Caradoc on the sofa to see if they are being shattered by the same revelation that had just been dropped devastatingly into her own world. They look nonchalant and relaxed and it cuts her a little when she realises that this is all old news.
“So is it botched?” Fabian asks, rolling out of Caradoc’s arms just enough to be heard across the room.
“No,” Remus says. “We salvaged it. I had to punch Sirius in the face though. I pretended he’d followed me out. Sirius punched Greyback once or twice and calmed down enough to regain his fucking sanity. He pretended to pass out after Greyback caught him on the chin right there. I told him to meet me Saturday night in the same apartment in Red Hook Bellatrix is going to. If we’re lucky, those two psychos will kill each other in confusion.” He laughed once, bleakly. “I’m so tired.”
Sirius looked at him and a little flash of worry dropped across his face. “What kind of tired?” he asked, some kind of inflection in his voice that suggested it was a loaded question.
“Just normal tired, Padfoot. Don’t worry. I told you that I had it under control. I’m fine.”
Sirius smiled, mollified. “Okay, let’s go to bed then. Are you guys still working in here?” He asked, directing the question to Caradoc and Fabian.
“Yeah,” Caradoc replied. “We’ve gotta go through the tape of Dolohov in the street-fight from last week, just in case, so we know the weak points. We were just taking a break. The stuff is all set up in your bedroom, sorry. Do you want to use our suite? It’s three doors down.”
“Sure,” Remus said, scrubbing his hand over his face and half-yawning. He took the key from the coffee table and led Sirius out the door with a thumb through Sirius’ belt loops.
Tonks was staring blankly at the history channel. Grainy black and white footage of bombs sinking into the ocean shivered across the screen. Her heart felt just the same way. James shut the door behind Remus and Sirius and came to sit down on the sofa next to her.
“Remus didn’t know you had a bit of a crush on him, Tonks,” he said, gently. “Just like he doesn’t realise that he was flirting with you, sometimes. He wasn’t trying to be cruel. He just doesn’t pay any attention to anyone but Sirius when it comes to things like that.”
“It’s not a crush,” she says, immediately, and sounding like a dumb kid even to herself. She’s mad, suddenly, but more with her own stupidity than with Remus or anyone else. Why would someone like her attract Remus, anyway. She’s not half the thief the rest of these people are yet, and she’s not half so interesting either.
“Hey, hey,” James says, soft. He scoots closer to her and slides his arm around her back slowly, pressing Tonks into his shoulder. “When people say “it’s not you, it’s him” it’s very rarely true, but this time I can promise you it is. Remus and Sirius have been together for almost fifteen years. They know each other better than they know themselves. When I say together, I mean they can’t love anything in the world as hard and deep and fast and close as they love each other.”
Tonks sucks in a shaky breath, promising herself that she won’t cry. James brushes his hand over her hair soothingly. She’d wondered before how someone like James could be married to someone like Lily, could have a child and such responsibility, and now she gets it.
“But, I didn’t know for so long,” she whispers. “Do they hide it? Why didn’t I know? I don’t understand.”
“They weren’t hiding it. They just don’t feel the need to show it off.”
“I didn’t know they’d hooked up until about two years after the fact,” Fabian said, laughing a little. “I mean, I suppose I suspected. They acted like a couple, but they just didn’t do anything to confirm it. Personally, I think they forget that people don’t automatically know by looking at them. Loving each other is a fact for them like their names are facts.”
“I don’t understand any of you,” Tonks said, softly, sadly. “You’re all a mystery wrapped up together. How do you know each other? How do you know the Death Eaters and Riddle? How did you all get mixed together like you are?”
James sighed. “The story, in its entirety, it far too long and complicated for tonight. I’ll tell you a little, though.”
James leans back on the sofa after smoothing his hand over her shoulder one last time. “When Sirius and Remus met, they were both in a bad state. You must know a little about Sirius from your mother. He was another in a long list of runaways trying to escape the legacy of the nastiest, wealthiest most powerful aspects of criminal life, which linger over the Black family. But Sirius wasn’t just some cousin twice removed…he was their heir to the family business. He’d been raised to it. The Blacks were not happy when he ran.”
James looks over at her before continuing. There is a hard expression on his face that seems to imply he feels it’s important that Tonks know these things, but not that he should have to explain them. “So Sirius was jumping from distant acquaintance to distant acquaintance, trying to pull a few cons here and there to keep himself off the streets where his parents might find him and take him back home to teach him a lesson…and…”
“And what?” Tonks asks. James doesn’t want to say whatever he needs to.
Finally, Fabian cuts in. “Remus was a sixteen year old manic depressive running small time drug deals, cocaine, mostly…. Greyback had dragged him off the street two years before. He used him; for something to hurt, for sex. Remus was a just kid, and he needed clothes and food bad enough to take whatever Greyback dealt out.”
Tonks’s hand flies to her mouth involuntarily. She thinks about her own childhood. Her boring parents who work in the garden on Saturdays and do the crossword puzzles every morning and sometimes, perhaps they steal a piece of medium valued art and sell it off, and that’s the only excitement. She’d loathed it, and she is momentarily disgusted with herself for that.
James picks the story back up again, “He met Sirius when he was selling to one of the people Sirius was staying with. For all I know, it was love at first sight. All I’m sure of is that they pulled a job together and it didn’t go particularly well. They met me a few months later, I introduced them to Dumbledore—he’s a our backer”
“And that’s that?” Tonks asks, voice on the embarrassing side of feeble.
“Well, not exactly. I mean, Remus was a real mess, and Sirius wasn’t too good himself. They cleaned up, though. I’ve never seen two people willing to save each other but not themselves they way they did.”
“But why this job? Why ruin Riddle?”
“Well,” James says, “That’s also complicated. It has to do a lot with Sirius’s family, and a lot of other things. Sirius was running a long con with Lily, Peter Pettigrew, Remus and me, and Riddle screwed us over using Peter. At the same time, he was running a few high profile scams, which were hurting a lot of people who didn’t have the money to survive it. We found out and tried to fight it, but didn’t succeed much. Regulus, Sirius’s little brother, was one of Riddle’s people, but he didn’t agree with what Riddle was doing. He threatened to tell authorities, he got offed, Sirius flipped…the rest, as they say, is history.”
“The rest is history?” Tonks says, forgetting for a moment that she doesn’t have the right to want more knowledge than what if offered to her.
“That’s it,” James says. “That’s the short version, anyway. Two kids had a shit life, found each other, fixed each other, sometimes they ran into bad spots. You should get some sleep, Tonks. We’re bringing a man’s life down around his ears in less than forty-eight hours.”
The last time Remus visits Sirius in prison it’s a Sunday. They don’t known yet that Sirius is going to be let out on good behaviour three years early, and that he’ll be pulling an Ace of Hearts out of the collar of Remus’ jacket in less than a month. Remus looks worse than Sirius now. Exhausted to the bone. He tries not to look depressed, but that isn’t the kind of thing he can hide from Sirius.
“Are you taking your meds?” Sirius asks. Remus is starting to dream of Sirius speaking with that distant crackled phone voice. He’s starting to remember him as blurred around the edges, like he’s always been on the other side of a glass wall.
“Of course I am, Padfoot, but you know perfectly well that they don’t work miracles. Lily calls all the time, anyway. If I have an episode, she and James will notice I’m messed up and come right over.”
“What if you hallucinate again?”
“I haven’t had anything that bad since I was seventeen, and you know it. I’m just lonely, Sirius.”
“I’m so sorry,” he says suddenly, looking down.
Remus blinks, “What? What for?”
“I’m sorry you’re here, waiting for me and wanting me all because I was so fucking stupid handling the situation with Riddle and Pettigrew and not telling anyone the right things at the right times. I’m sorry…I’m sorry.”
“Don’t,” Remus says, quietly angry, “The fact is, I’d be dead by now if I’d never met you, so don’t be sorry for anything--”
“You don’t know that…”
“Yes I do,” Remus promises. “Drug overdose, suicide, a bad con with some real idiots, maybe Greyback might have hit me just a little too hard. There were a million ways I could have gone that you saved me from, Sirius.”
Sirius breathes out slowly. His breath makes a white cloud on the surface of the glass and he reaches out his hand to paint a heart with his fingerprint. Remus smiles genuinely.
“You’re such a sap,” he murmurs, laughing as he digs around in his pockets and pulls out a pack of cards. He picks off the top three and shows them to Sirius. The middle card is ace of hearts.
Sirius finds it every time. Remus throws the card in what he feels is a completely random pattern. He knows his own tells, and he controls them perfectly. Sirius always guesses when Remus has thrown the card, though. He’s magic like that.
“I miss you,” he says, finally, just before he leaves.
“I love you,” Sirius replies.
Remus goes home and curls up into a loose ball on the bed. He shuffles the deck of cards through his handles over and over again. It feels wrong. He glances through all the cards. Counting them and he throws them in a pile. The ace of hearts is missing.
It’s the only con Sirius ever pulls on Remus.
It’s the only con Sirius ever pulls where Remus never learns the trick.
Sirius talks to Mr Riddle in the Overlord Bar and then goes to the third elevator off the casino corridor with all the cheap slot machines. He presses the call button. Mad-Eye’s voice crackles over the microphone in his ear. “Alright lad,” Mad-Eye says, “We finally got it cracked this morning. Ride this one up to the top floor you can access, and then once you’re there, take the small elevator across the hall next to ice machine five-two-eight. It looks like a service elevator except it has a solid gold call button.
Sirius scoffs. “That is so pretentious.”
Remus is waiting for him on the fiftieth floor. “Shall we?” he intones.
“Certainly,” Sirius says, resting his hand on the arm Remus extends.
“Okay,” Mad-Eye says, “The sequence for the call button spells out ‘hallow’ in Morse code.”
“Cheers, Mad-Eye, now go help out the kids in the vault.”
Riddle’s private penthouse is large and almost desolate with clean silver and grey and black modern lines. There is no art on the walls, not even something to exhibit excessive wealth. There are no books anywhere, either. Sirius thinks of their apartment, filled to the brim with stolen paintings they never intended to fence, shelves of old books, and the quilts Mrs Weasley makes them every year for Christmas.
They find the piano in the dining room. It doesn’t fit in with the apartment, not even a little bit. The wood is all worn with a thousand antiqued refinishing attempts. Sirius rubs his thumb over the spot where he carved his initials into the surface when he was ten and hiding from his mother in the shadow of the black and white keys. Beneath his clumsy young letters, are three newly printed, spelling out R. A. B. Sirius closes his eyes and swallows thickly. He sits at the bench and picks out the first few notes of Fur Elise from memory.
“Call Riddle now,” Sirius says, leaning into the sound of the notes springing up from his fingers. It’s out of tune, just slightly, and Sirius feels a shiver of pure rage boil up under the surface of his skin, like the treatment of this piano, his brother’s piano is too much of a metaphor to ignore.
He doesn’t pay any attention as Remus says into the phone, “Mr Riddle, I’m just calling to let you know that we’re retrieving our piano. No need to send movers, though. We can handle it.”
Remus holds the phone out, letting Sirius’s music fill the earpiece. He remembers Regulus at the bench next to him, guiding his fingers gently into a scale. He stops abruptly and stands, sending the bench scraping across the marble floor.
“Let’s go,” he says.
Remus nods once, and goes out onto the balcony. The helicopter is hovering about a hundred feet in the air above the hotel, but as Remus goes out, it begins to descend. Remus comes back inside where Sirius in laying the moving blanket from his bag out on the ground.
“Lift with your knees,” Sirius says. Remus rolls his eyes affectionately and follows Sirius’s advice. It’s so windy on the balcony now that Sirius’s hair is instantly whipped up around his head in an inky froth. He looks beautiful and so young. Young like he must have looked before Remus ever knew him, before he’d had his heart broken by his family, before he’d had his heart broken by seeing Remus for the first time, bloody-lipped and so dull-eyed with sadness trying to sell him cocaine in a basement apartment owned by a washed up thief who never even asked Sirius his name, before he’d had his heart broken by four years of a glass wall between them.
Lily is hanging on to the end of the piano harness, and she jumps off as they carry the piano out to the helicopter. “Ready boys?” she asks, affixing the last of the safety ties. “I want to get back up in the cockpit. James can’t really be trusted to fly properly without supervision.”
Sirius and Remus nod together. They allow themselves to be raised up to the helicopter and then they are going up, up, up in the air. As the piano clears the hotel roof, Sirius looks back and catches sight of Riddle, standing on the balcony with a spill of every security guard and police officer he could possibly find fanning out behind him. He’s just staring with an expression on his face that almost looks perplexed. Sirius grins.
They pass over the hotel and then Sirius looks again, this time spotting the red painters van pulling away from the deliveries entrance. There is a green flag tapped to the radio antenna, and Sirius sighs as he leans back against his seat, adjusting his earmuffs. Remus grins next to him, and leans across the space between them. He presses his mouth, warm and sweet and jittery against Sirius’.
They set the piano down cautiously in the front yard of the safe-house in Great Basin National Park. The red truck pulls in approximately an hour later. It’s followed closely by an old silver Volvo. Sirius and Remus are already sprawling across each other on the sofa as the rest of the group shuffles in through the front door. Lily takes Harry from McGonagall who’d been watching him while Lily helped with the piano.
They don’t look happy. Sirius is feeling high on adrenaline and a sense of accomplishment, but none of them look at all happy.
“What happened?” Remus asks, not wanting to wait for bad news.
“It’s the ledgers,” Gideon says, collapsing into one of the practically broken wooden chairs crowded around a wooden table.
Sirius’ face goes flat and emotionless. “What do you mean?”
“We pulled them all up from right where you said,” Tonks says.
“Fab and I even looked around to be sure there weren’t any somewhere else,” Gideon adds.
“What happened?” Sirius says, tightly.
“They’re just blank. Eight volumes of nothingness.”
“Fuck,” Sirius says. His joy fades out, and he goes to sit back in his corner of the room, where he’d been chatting before. He looks like a mess now, all the light that made his tangled hair and tired face seem satisfied is gone.
Suddenly, on his sits straight back up again. “I’ve got an idea.”
He goes across the room to the piano, and then with gentle care, he presses every single key. Of course, Sirius is never wrong, and so there is a key that sounds broken or confused or stuck. They open up the piano. All eight books are stacked up just so, in a neat pile between the hammers of the piano strings, wedged between the potential music.
“What are they?” Tonks asks like she has more and more questions waiting on the wings of her words.
Sirius mouth twists into disgust as he replies. “Riddle keeps a few brothels out in the desert with girls who don’t know what they’ve gotten themselves into. They keep them on drugs so they don’t run off, and they’re not exactly willing. These are the ledgers for them.”
They call Riddle again the next day.
“We have your money, and your piano,” Sirius says, voice sing-song. “But the best thing is the books, by far.”
Riddle can’t hide the panic in his voice even as he says, “What do you think you’re going to do with those? Go to the police? With the ledgers you stole from my casino along with millions and millions of dollars?”
“Oh no, no, no,” Sirius says, laughing. “That would be kind. I am going to hand them over to Don Sangrini, who has a few things to say about the kind of man who opens a brothel in his territory with girls who aren’t even half-willing and doesn’t deal in the rules the Sangrini family so kindly makes us all aware of.”
Riddle doesn’t say anything more.
It’s four thirty-six in the morning and no one in Vegas is sleeping. The lights in the hotel room are dim and burnish Sirius’s skin cream and buttermilk gold. Remus has that warm lasting ache under his skin, and Sirius is sprawled out like he feels it too, which he must.
Remus lays out three cards on the bed between them, pulling the duvet across his legs so he doesn’t chill. “Follow the Ace of Hearts,” he murmurs. He doesn’t show Sirius where the cards start out. Sirius is rubbing circles in the skin of Remus’s ankle, small gentle circles, tracing patterns. Remus hums with pleasure under his breath as he flips the cards across each other. When he lays the last one down, he looks up at Sirius through his lashes, biting his lip red.
“Which one?” he asks.
Sirius picks the right one. Of course he does. He picks the right one three more times.
“How do you do it?” Remus asks finally, shuffling the cards back together and setting them on the side table before lying across the bed with Sirius and aligning so their thighs and shoulders and ribs all touch. Sirius rolls to look down at Remus, propping himself up on his elbow.
“It’s the way you touch them as you set them down,” Sirius says. “You touch the one you want me to pick like you touch me.”
Remus runs his fingers over Sirius’s collarbones, and down his back, across the bumps in his spine, pulling them together tightly. Sirius leans into the embrace, releasing himself to Remus’s arms and closing his eyes, breathing. On the other side of their hotel curtains, dawn is painting the indigo sky yellow against the mountains; gentle, gentle—and everything is new.
Sleep in peace when day is done
That's what I mean
And this old world is a new world
And a bold world