Dear Mum and Dad,
My friend Sirius Black has invited me to stay with his family for a fortnight, once school finishes. You remember his father is the Earl of Shellingham? I'm sorry; I know I wasn't home for Christmas or Easter this year. You can tell me how disappointed you are when you see me.
A-Levels are going well, so far. Tomorrow is Maths, which I'm not at all worried about. Well, maybe a little. With any luck, I'll get the marks I need for Surrey, but I really hope I can meet Bristol's requirements. They're one of the best for Psychology.
Expect me home around the end of June. I'll write again to let you know which day, and which train I'll be catching. Give Nat a hug from me when she gets home. I miss you.
Your loving son,
P.S., Could you please pick up a copy of the LEA grant application for me so I can start filling it out as soon as I get home? Thanks!
The train was hot and crowded. Remus had unbuttoned his top two buttons, but he was still in danger of sweating through his shirt. He barely noticed. His eyes were fixed on the boy beside him. Sirius sat hunched over, eyes lowered, white-knuckled fists in his lap.
"Sirius --?" Remus pitched his voice below the hubbub of the carriage.
Sirius shook his head. "I'm fine."
Remus knew it was a lie. His face was pale, and there were dark circles under his eyes -- marks left by the nightmares that had plagued his sleep every night for the past week. Remus was exhausted, too. When Sirius did not sleep, he rarely did either. He longed to reach over and touch the boy he loved, to offer comfort, but they were in public.
"Sirius, talk to me." If he could only distract Sirius from his thoughts, he might forestall a full-on anxiety attack.
"It's just -- I don't want to. I don't want to go home. I don't want to deal with them."
"I know," murmured Remus, soothing. "But I'll be there, and before you know it, you'll be off with James. Until then, just -- one day at a time, yeah?"
Sirius nodded jerkily. His hands clenched tighter across his belly.
"I -- I don't feel so -- I need some air," he gasped, leaping from his seat and bolting down the narrow, crowded passage between the seats.
Hastily, Remus went after him. When Sirius ducked into one of the train's small toilets, Remus followed. He stroked the sweat-soaked hair on the back of Sirius's neck, murmuring soft words as Sirius brought up what little he had eaten for breakfast, and helped him rinse his mouth with water, after. Sirius clung to him, his whole body shaking. Remus could feel the pounding of his heart as he held him close.
"Would it be easier if I wasn't there?" he asked. "I can go home tomorrow, if it's too much."
Sirius's arms tightened around him. "Don't go!" his voice held a note of panic.
"I won't," Remus promised. "We're a team, aren't we? I have your back, no matter what."
"I love you." The words were muffled against Remus's shoulder.
Remus smiled. "I love you, too. You're going to be fine."
A car met them at the station. A very shiny, very black, and very expensive-looking car. The crisply-dressed driver nodded to them before loading their luggage into the boot.
"Welcome home, m'lord."
"Johnson," Sirius nodded in return. "This is my friend, Remus Lupin. He'll be staying for a while."
"A pleasure to meet you, Sir," said the driver.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Sirius slid across the cushy red leather seat to snuggle against a surprised Remus.
"It's all right," Sirius assured him. "Johnson won't blab. I saw him with a bloke from the village once."
If the car was impressive, the residence was staggering.
"You live here?" said Remus faintly, peering through the dark-tinted windows as the car passed through the gates of an imposing Mediaeval fortress, perched high on a rocky promontory above the village.
Sirius shrugged, looking uncomfortable. "When I can't help it. Does it freak you out?"
It did, a little. When they were at school, it was easy to forget that Sirius came from old blood and massive wealth, but now the trappings of it were all around Remus, making him feel self-consciously common and grubby. "It might take some getting used to."
"Hopefully we won't be here long enough for that," said Sirius. "Will you kiss me? It might be a while before we get the chance again."
The desperation on Sirius's lips reminded Remus that, however uncomfortable he might feel in these surroundings, it was nothing to Sirius's anxiety at being there. Sirius was still Sirius, whatever his background, and right now, comfort and reassurance meant more to him than all the money in the world. Remus set his own discomfort aside and devoted his full attention to making sure that Sirius was well and thoroughly kissed until the car came to a stop.
They were met in the entrance hall by the tiny, elderly head housekeeper, whom Sirius addressed as Mrs Kreacher. She eyed them with ill-disguised dislike.
"Your suite is ready, m'lord. I shall arrange a guest room for Mr Lupin." She bowed stiffly, then added, "The Earl and Countess expect your presence in the main dining hall at six o'clock, where you are to dine with them and their guests. I will inform the serving staff to lay a place for Mr Lupin, as well."
"You didn't tell them I was coming?" asked Remus when she had gone.
Sirius shook his head. "They can't stop me having guests. I didn't see any reason to tell them."
"She didn't seem very happy to see me."
"It's me she's not happy to see," said Sirius, jaw tight. "She was fond of Regs, but she didn't like me even before --" He broke off and shook himself. "C'mon."
Sirius showed him up the stairs, pointing out various items of value or history along the way. Remus nodded or said "oh, really?" at appropriate intervals, and Sirius cast him odd, assessing looks. When they reached his rooms, Sirius closed the door and leaned against it.
"So, what do you think?"
Remus shrugged. "It's all right, I guess. I wouldn't much fancy the thought of living here, though."
Sirius let out a breath and sagged against the door. "Oh, good. Me neither."
"You didn't think I was interested in your money, did you?" asked Remus.
It was Sirius's turn to shrug. "Not really. But sometimes, people get weird after they've seen all this."
"Come here," said Remus, holding out his hands.
Sirius stepped closer and took them. Remus squeezed his fingers tight, resting his forehead against Sirius's.
"I promise not to 'get weird' about it," he said. "Money's nice. Enough money, I mean. Anything extra is unnecessary. Now, shall we go find some lunch?"
Sirius kissed Remus on the nose. "Yes, definitely."
After lunch, they returned to Sirius's rooms and took a nap on the enormous canopied bed. Sirius slept soundly, safe in Remus's arms.
They woke in time for supper. Remus returned to the guest room to find his best shirt and trousers freshly pressed, and his shoes polished. This will definitely take some getting used to, he thought as he dressed.
He was not certain how he felt about meeting Sirius's parents. He was not looking forwards to the experience, but on the other hand, he did not have to worry much about making a good impression; it did not matter whether they liked him or not, especially not to Sirius. Still, Remus found that he did want to make a good impression if he could.
The Earl and Countess greeted him with polite, neutral smiles when Sirius introduced him. The Earl resembled his son to a remarkable degree, sharing the same black hair, grey eyes, and aristocratic good looks. His temples were greying, and deep lines framed his nose and mouth. The Countess was not as attractive as her husband. She was a tall, thin woman with a sharp face, iron-grey hair, and suspicious black eyes.
Their other guests for supper were the Mayor of Shellingham, the vicar of the local parish, a baroness and her teenage daughter. Sirius greeted the girl stiffly. When they sat down at the table, Remus felt Sirius's foot nudge against his. He nudged back -- the only comfort and encouragement he could safely offer.
Remus was soft-spoken and polite to the other diners, speaking only when spoken to. Sirius, too, was quiet. He spoke only when asked direct questions, and his responses were monosyllabic. The girl sitting across from him tried in vain to engage him in conversation, but Sirius hardly looked at her. His parents, seated at the ends of the table, could barely conceal their disapproval. When his father pointedly suggested that perhaps he would like to give the young lady a tour of the castle grounds after supper, Sirius's jaw tightened, but all he said was, "I'm tired, Father. It's been a long day."
"I'd love to see the grounds sometime," said the girl. "Perhaps next week --?"
"Doubtful," Sirius told her frostily. "I have a very busy summer planned. I suggest taking one of the official guided tours of the estate. The guides should be able to tell you anything you want to know."
The girl lapsed into disappointed silence.
"Don't be silly," said the Countess with a false smile. "My son has been too long at school. He has forgotten the proper courtesies due a young lady. I'm sure he can find the time for such a charming companion in his busy schedule."
The vicar shook his head mournfully. "Boys' schools can be dangerous, if one is not vigilant. Without the civilising influence of women, young men can fall into all kinds of trouble, and even sinful behaviour."
The Countess's mouth tightened. "Well, we do not tolerate that sort of nonsense in this house."
"No, of course not!" the vicar blushed. "I never meant to suggest -- Please forgive me, m'lady."
"There is nothing to forgive, Father." The Countess waved a dismissive hand. "I have heard such rumours as well. I hope there is little truth to them, but I imagine such animalistic tendencies are more common among the lower classes. Well-bred gentlemen do not engage in such behaviour."
"I am sure you are right, m'lady," said the vicar. "But what are we thinking, speaking of such unsavoury topics in the presence of a young lady?" He bowed his head to the girl. "Your pardon, my dear."
The girl looked puzzled, but nodded to him in return. From the end of the table, the Countess's eyes flicked between her son and Remus, her lips pressed thin. She knows, he thought.
When the guests departed, the Earl and Countess bid Remus goodnight as well, but asked Sirius to remain a moment. Remus did not want to leave him alone with them, but saw no way around it. He went up the stairs and hovered in the doorway to the guest room, waiting.
It was half an hour before Sirius reappeared, looking battle-weary and completely demoralised. As soon as Remus closed the door, Sirius fell into his arms, trembling.
"I have to go on three outings with that girl next month," he said, voice muffled in Remus's shirt. "It's the only way they would agree to let you stay. And they said if they hear even a hint of any impropriety, they'll send you packing."
"It's all right," Remus told him, stroking his hair. "We'll be careful."
"They hate me. My family hates me. And I hate them." He lifted his head to look at Remus. "Does that make me a terrible person? Hating my family? I come from them. What if I'm just like them?"
"Shhh," Remus soothed. "You're not a thing like them. You're wonderful. If you weren't, I wouldn't love you as much as I do." The tender kiss he pressed to Sirius's mouth went on for a long time.
"Can we go to bed?" sighed Sirius. "I just -- don't want to think about anything for a while."
Gently, Remus undressed him, kissing him again and again. When he laid him down on the bed, Sirius plucked at the vest Remus still wore.
"If it makes you more comfortable, you can keep it on, but you don't have to wear it on my account. Your scars don't trouble me. I'd like to be as close to you as possible right now."
Remus hesitated only a moment before drawing the undershirt off over his head. He gathered Sirius into his arms and held him close, their bare skins pressed together, kissing and touching and murmuring soft words. Remus made love to Sirius slowly and gently, and afterwards, held him while he wept.
"Better now?" he asked, when Sirius quieted.
"Much," sighed Sirius, nuzzling closer against Remus's shoulder. "Dunno what I'll do without you when I'm off galavanting around Europe with James."
"I'll miss you, too," said Remus, kissing the top of his head.
Sirius's thumb traced the curve of Remus's collarbone. "I could fly you down for a weekend, now and then. You could meet me in Paris, Rome, Prague...."
"You'll probably meet a handsome Frenchman and forget all about me," Remus teased. "Anyway, I wouldn't feel right having you spend that much money on me."
"The money's nothing," Sirius told him. "I'd rather have you than a thousand handsome Frenchmen and all the money in the world."
Remus laughed. "I'll bet you say that to all the boys."
Sirius looked up at him, eyes searching. "I'm not joking, Remus. If I lost everything, but I still had you, I would be happy. I don't ever want us to stop."
Remus's smile softened. "I don't either."
Groping for his hand, Sirius laced their fingers together. "If it were legal," he said softly, "I'd ask you to marry me."
The breath caught in Remus's throat. "But it's not."
"Would you?" Sirius asked. "If we could? Would you marry me, Remus?"
Remus's heart was hammering in his chest. It was difficult to speak around the lump in his throat. "Yes," he whispered.
The next few minutes were filled with kissing. When they broke apart, there were tears on Remus's cheeks.
"What's this?" asked Sirius, thumb brushing away the moisture.
Remus shook his head. "It's silly, but -- I feel like you really proposed to me."
"I think I did," said Sirius. "There's no law against me asking, or against you saying 'yes'."
"I suppose that's true."
"Just promise me, Remus," Sirius begged, "if there's ever a way that we can, we'll make it real."
They kissed some more, and then Sirius grinned. "I suppose this means you're my fiancé now. And I'm yours."
Remus could not hold back a smile. "I suppose it does."
"I'm going to buy you a ring," Sirius told him.
"Don't be silly," laughed Remus.
Sirius snuggled closer in Remus's arms with a contented sigh. "I am, though. Only the best for my betrothed."