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"Pretty," Dorrie said, dropping down into the leaves.

"Yes, pretty," Sirius said, automatically. He found that he could carry on whole conversations like this, without ever really engaging his brain. He supposed it was rude of him.

A chubby finger aimed itself up at the glory of a scarlet maple tree. "Why pretty?"

Sirius groaned: he was sick of that word. Why was his shoe big? Why was the tree scratchy? Why was London Bridge falling down? Why did he have whiskers? Why was jam sweet? Why was the Forest bad? Why was the bug not moving? It didn't help that he knew that he had been told why leaves turned colours, and that his traitorous brain simply didn't wish to recall.

"It's the green stuff," he said gamely. "The plants eat it, and then it goes away. Chloresterol, right, Moony?"

"Chlorophyll," Remus said from his nest in the leaves. "She's two, Pads, try being age-appropriate." He held out a scarlet leaf. "Do you know what this is?"

"Red," she said disdainfully, and threw fistfuls of dead leaves over him. "What's this."

Remus growled and grinned and grabbed for her; obviously, Sirius thought, he hadn't learned the most essential thing about Nymphadora Tonks, which was that she did not run away from danger. He watched in amusement as Remus' attempt at chasing her ended up with her climbing Remus' ribs like a ladder, her fists tight in his leaf-crowned hair, her sharp leather shoes making muddy tracks down his shirt. She settled herself on his shoulders contentedly and ordered him to take her down to the lake.

Remus had to lean heavily on Sirius to push himself to standing, even though Dorrie wasn't that heavy, and Sirius had to bite his lip to keep from saying stupid mothering things. This was the first time he'd been alone (more or less) with Remus since they'd been in the infirmary together, and there was a definite awkwardness between them.

Remus had forgiven him; that was well and good. But Remus sometimes couldn't bring himself to look at him, and sometimes Sirius' voice came out far too loud and falsely jolly. And of course they would sooner tango with trolls than have a discussion about it: the idea had actually never crossed Sirius' mind.

He did think things might be better if he could goad Remus into punching him, although that had not worked so well the last time (speaking of being in the infirmary). He'd thought the previous night's transformation might have made things more normal; he always found that it cleared his head of unruly thoughts to be a dog for a while. But Remus was ever the same, if wan and tired. It was a puzzlement.

Halfway down to the lake he took his turn at niece-bearing. He wished James and Peter hadn't run away in horror at the thought of baby-sitting, forcing him to beg shamelessly for Remus to come with him. But the prospect of diapers appalled him.

"Pretty," Dorrie said, as Sirius set her down by the water's edge. ("Don't you dare take her anywhere dangerous," Andromeda had warned. Sirius hoped that the squid was occupied somewhere else.)

"Isn't it?" Sirius said happily. He scooped up a handful of stones and picked out the good skippers. He divided them evenly three ways (well, he gave the rounder ones to Dorrie—what did she know about skipping stones?) and made a wager with Remus, because that was how it was done.

Of course, like most everything else, the game was one that Remus had taught him and he had no chance of winning. The Blacks were not the sort to enjoy throwing rocks instead of hexes. In that, Dorrie was a true Tonks. Her enthusiasm coupled with her lack of range had all three of them soaked in less time than it took for Sirius to lose a week's worth of puddings to Remus, especially when she discovered that the really big rocks made great lovely splashes.

After a final heave and a wave of water that washed over Dorrie's shoes, Remus took out his wand and dried them all efficiently, putting a warming charm on Dorrie's clothes as well. He mentioned casually how the view from the big rock was excellent, pity that she was too titchy to climb up and see it.

"Pretty," Dorrie said, poking at the red that grew along the rock's surface. Sirius kept himself in a hover between her and the two-metre drop down to the stony lakeshore.

"That's moss," Sirius said.

Remus snorted. He had stretched out flat and was sunning himself. "Lichen, not moss. People used to boil it to make dye for wool. A very pretty red," he added.

Dorrie patted the lichen in violent appreciation. "Pretty, pretty." She looked up at Sirius. "Thirry pretty."

"Dorrie pretty," he countered. They'd played this game before, and he understood it much better than her interrogative fancies of "why". "Rock pretty, sky pretty, water pretty, school pretty."

"Boy pretty?" she asked, pointing at Remus.

"Yes, boy pretty," Sirius assured her. He was surprised when Remus' eyes snapped to him, and doubly so when Dorrie shook her head empathetically.

"Boy not pretty," she told him with a smile. "Dorrie pretty."

"Oh, yes, you're gorgeous," he said, his brain going off again and leaving the conversation up to his mouth for the next several minutes.

The shadows were lengthening when Remus stretched, joints popping, and sat up. "We'd better take you up for tea, or your mum'll eat it all."

Getting Dorrie down proved harder than getting her up, and she was fractious. Sirius recalled that Andromeda had specified a nap of no less than thirty minutes, sometime between one and two. Dorrie refused to walk, but when Sirius picked her up she kicked and wriggled. She also seemed to have doubled in weight, or perhaps that had to do with slogging back uphill.

"Help, Moony, she's gone all peevish on me," he whispered loudly. Dorrie glared at him; he feared tears and tantrums and the wrath of his favourite cousin.

Remus looked up at the castle, still a good distance away, especially if measured by balky two-year-old legs or wobbly werewolf legs. "Why don't you go fetch us some food? And maybe some tea." Two hopeful faces turned to him, and Sirius was already to the school doors when he began to suspect that he had been skilfully manipulated. Moony he could forgive, but it rankled to be exploited like this by a baby.

Or perhaps that was backwards.

By the time he was heading back down the hill with a well-packed basket from the kitchens (he'd persuaded the house-elves to part with some of the treats for the Slytherin Alumni Association tea) he had himself convinced that both Dorrie and Moony were slippery characters who bore careful watching.

He found them sitting under an oak tree, amidst a squirrel's ransom of acorns. Dorrie was wrapped up in Remus' robe, only her little pink heart face showing. She was sound asleep, cradled in Remus' arms. From the look of him Remus was dozing too, his head resting against the tree trunk and his eyelashes resting on the dark shadows under his eyes.

Sirius dropped down on the knobbly ground and lay his cheek on his knee as he pondered his dilemma while eating some of the excellent parsley and cheese scones.

Not pretty, Sirius heard Dorrie saying again, and it was true; so why, when Remus' eyes fluttered open and focused on his face, did Sirius think she had missed something?

"I'll have one of those," Remus said, and Sirius handed him a scone wordlessly. "She just dropped off in the middle of scissor, paper, stone. I think we wore her out. I know she wore me out."

"Lazy bastard," Sirius said idly. "Want a grape?"

"That's why I love you, Padfoot," Remus said, mouth full and failing to keep juice from going down his chin. "You keep me well fed."

"And here I thought it was because I'm so pretty."

"Decorative and functional," Remus said. "Ow! What if one of those hit Dorrie?"

"Hiding behind a baby, Moony? Not Gryffindor of you at all."

"Get away from me with that—away, away—oh, fuck, you're dead, Black, as soon as I can get to my wand."

Sirius smirked as Remus licked away the butterbeer that was trickling down from his hair. "Better not let Andromeda hear you talking like that around Dorrie."

Remus responded with a few choice comments that made Sirius' hair curl in an attempt to protect his ears. Sirius tried a drying spell, but it left Remus' hair sticking up in sharp little points like a hedgehog. Remus pretended not to be appeased, but he was smiling as he finished off the rolled-up ham things. He sighed, and stretched as far as he was able. "We should be heading back. I'm getting acorn-shaped bruises on my arse."

"Give me the sprog, then." Sirius shifted her about, finally finding a position with Dorrie's head on his shoulder that was moderately comfortable, although her shoes banged his legs with every step. Remus fell in step with him, walking stiffly but looking impervious to the cold in his thin, dirty shirt.

"You should babysit more often," Remus said, swinging the empty hamper. "You've been away with the fairies, and now you're back to your old self."

Sirius grunted, unable to respond until he was at the top of the stairs and could catch his breath. "Suggest such a thing to my cousin," he panted, trying to glare in a threatening manner at Remus, but not sure he was succeeding because Remus was grinning ear to ear, "and I swear I'll hex you into next year."

Away with the fairies, indeed.