Everything is so odd when Remus is home for the summer.
Take breakfast: No James to steal the waffles from his plate. No Sirius to replace the coffee in his mug with whatever he finds amusing that day. No Peter to quietly warn him. Just an entire stack of his mother's waffles that he doesn't have to fight over, coffee that remains coffee for the entire morning, the Daily Prophet on the table in front of him, and his mother in the chair opposite, flipping idly through the pages of Witch Weekly.
Peace and quiet.
Later today, there will be a cage in the cellar for him, rather than the entirety of the Forbidden Forest, and that is probably the reason his mother has made waffles for breakfast. But other than the soft hum in his brain that slows his thoughts and muddles his reasoning, there's no sign of that yet. He feels, for now, content to be home.
Then his mother turns a page in her magazine and his other life unexpectedly bleeds through.
"Narcissa Black," says Hope Lupin, and the name is so incongruent coming from his Muggle mother that he can't help but startle.
"What about her?" he says.
His mother holds up her magazine to show him the cover, where, between 100 ways to bewitch your beau and Most Charming Smile Award 1976 goes to LUDO BAGMAN, he sees the words Wedding of the Decade! Day 1 exclusive photo spread! Behind the scenes interview with the bridesmaids!
"She related to your friend?" says Hope. "The posh one. His name's Black, isn't it?"
"They're cousins, I think," says Remus. At least, that's his best guess; the Black family tree is not so much a tree as it is a maze. Some flavour of cousin is usually a safe bet, though.
"Gosh, he's even posher than I thought," says Hope. She's appraising Narcissa's pearly white wedding robes, worth more than the Lupin household's net income in a year.
She tries, his mother does. She even gets Witch Weekly to keep up with this strange, fascinating world that she married into. Sometimes it gives her the wrong ideas.
"Oh god, are they serious? This is just day one?" says Hope, now flipping through the rest of the photo spread. "Don't think I could have endured a three-day wedding. Your father and I were quite ready to strangle everyone by midday."
"So are the Blacks," says Remus. "They're just better at hiding the bodies."
His mother snickers.
"Oh, I bet your friend's in one of these photos," she says. "Let's see if I can find him."
"Knowing him, probably not," says Remus. "He usually doesn't stand still long enough."
He pours them both some more coffee and turns the page of the Daily Prophet, while his mother mutters, "Oh, drat! Can't they just stay put for a moment… is that him?"
Remus squints at the upside-down image. "That's his younger brother," he says, and she turns another page. "They look really alike, though," he adds, "we've all fallen for it before but we can never let Sirius know."
"Got him," she says.
Remus is surprised. "Can I see?" She hands him the magazine.
They rarely catch glimpses of Sirius during the summer, from the moment he is marched off King's Cross by his haughty parents, to the first of September, when he plonks down into his seat on the Hogwarts Express, laughing and relieved and happy. Sometimes Sirius writes. More often, he doesn't. He is in a different world, and fights different battles.
But sure enough, that's Sirius looking back at him from the official wedding photograph. Even though it's a wizarding photograph, everyone in it is so solemn and still it might as well not be. But something is odd, and it takes Remus a moment to figure out what: There's nothing obviously wrong.
Sirius is standing next to his mother, an open and not even particularly miserable expression on his face. His hair, always a reliable source of arguments with his mother, has been elaborately cut, a dashing undercut that accentuates the shape of his face, and there's not a ruffle nor cufflink out of place on his dress robes. His mother's hand is resting lightly on his arm, and she looks different, too: Content. Even, he hesitates to think, sane.
"Looks like he's having fun," he says.
Hope laughs. "If there is one demographic that does not enjoy elaborate family gatherings," she says, "it's probably teenage boys. Remember Auntie Beth's wedding?"
"Reluctantly," says Remus.
Later, Remus will wonder how everyone got it before he did. James got it. Peter got it. Even his Muggle mother got it, just from a group photo.
He takes a closer look at the photograph and decides he doesn't like the triumphant glint in Mrs Black's eyes. Though maybe that's her normal face, when she's not shouting abuse at her teenage son. He realises he can't remember seeing her in a mood other than livid.
Remus flips through the magazine. It has everything a reader of Witch Weekly could ask of the wedding of the decade. The dress. The bridesmaids. The vows. The garden reception. The cutting of the cake (and what a gemstone-encrusted monstrosity of a cake!). The ballroom of Malfoy Manor.
As it turns out, it also has portraits of the most important wedding guests, and there is another of Sirius that his mother has missed: This time he is actually smiling, a friendly, open smile that is usually reserved for his friends. His face is lit up by the occasional spark occurring outside the image, and next to him stands Regulus, who is looking at his brother with carefully hidden scepticism.
Sirius Orion Black, Heir of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, and his younger brother Regulus Arcturus Black, enjoying the fireworks display, says the caption.
Absent-mindedly, Remus takes a sip of his coffee. They'd told him, Remus and James and Peter, all through the train ride from Hogwarts, they'd told Sirius to be careful this summer. To not provoke his parents, to stay safe, just for two more months. He'd turn seventeen in November and then he and his family could quietly rid themselves of each other without anyone losing face. It had been a good plan.
Looking down at the photographs, Remus realises he never in a million years expected Sirius to follow the plan so diligently.
"Handsome boys, both of them," says his mum, referring to the photograph.
Remus snickers. Privately, he thinks the Black brothers have passed handsome long ago and are now well on their way to pretty.
"Luck of the draw," he says. "Sirius has an uncle, and probably third cousin, who looks like an absolute troll. Lychen and all."
Deep in his stomach, something feels very, very wrong. But today is the day of the moon, and he attributes it to that.
Five hours later, Peter comes tumbling out of the Lupins' fireplace in a cloud of ash. Because it's the day of the moon, Remus's mother is not nearly as annoyed as she would usually be with an unannounced house guest. She merely tells Peter they're heading out to see Remus's grandma in Bristol later that day but he's welcome to stay for a slice of pie and some lemonade.
Remus wonders when his mother will pick up on the fact that at least one of his friends – usually James, but sometimes Peter - will always come unannounced on the day of the moon. James assures him it's mostly to see if Remus is okay, but they have clearly figured out that Hope Lupin bakes on moon days.
They know, he wants to tell her. My friends, they know, and they still want to be with me. His heart sings at the thought. But if there's one thing that is not going to fly in the Lupin household, it is moon nights roaming the wilderness with his animagus friends. The cage in the cellar is waiting for him and there's no way around that. He's glad Peter is here, if only for the afternoon.
Peter happily accepts a huge slice of apple pie with his lemonade while Remus, who is starting to feel jittery, declines both. They set off into the small orchard behind the cottage, where they settle in the shade underneath a pear tree.
"James says sorry, he couldn't make it," says Peter. "He's fretting."
"Really," says Remus. "What about?"
Peter is busy defending the pie from charging wasps. Remus watches him, knowing he should be eating, too. The wolf is always happier when he goes into the transformation sated. But the truth is he's fretting, too.
He really doesn't like the cage.
"Your mum gets Witch Weekly, doesn't she?" says Peter.
"Oh," says Remus. "Is this about Sirius?"
"He looks well, I thought," says Remus. "Haircut suits him, though don't let him know I said that."
"Looks a bit too well, James reckons," says Peter. "Quiet before the storm, sort of thing. James feels he must be on standby for a repeat performance of 1974."
"Prongsy is just lonely because the two of us are balls at Quidditch," observes Remus.
"…You're really shit at critical thinking on moon days, aren't you?" says Peter. "Have you seen Sirius's face? He's standing within ten feet of his brother and he's smiling."
"I noticed that," says Remus. "He's really gone all in this time, hasn't he?"
"Moony, pal," says Peter impatiently, and gesticulates at him with the pastry fork. With all the talking, he seems to have forgotten about the pie. "On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate our friend Padfoot's acting skills?"
Remus considers this from all sides. "Minus one," he says.
"Yeah, well, he's too busy playing himself."
"O.W.L. results came last weekend, too," says Peter.
"What about them?"
"Oh, I don't know, the Blacks finally found out Sirius has been taking Muggle Studies all this time?" says Peter. "Seriously, wolfie, think."
Remus winces. "I'll have my brain back tomorrow, I promise," he says. He vaguely remembers they'd talked about this on the train. "He got an Outstanding, too, I bet."
"Exactly. It's four weeks into the summer, so by all means they should be at each other's throats anyway. With this ridiculous wedding on top, they're all seeing even more of each other than usual. Now the Heir of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black goes and receives top marks in eckletricity and motorbikes," says Peter. "I'm telling you, Grimmauld Place should be a war zone. Something's wrong."
Remus tries to think, but comes up with very little. "So what's James' theory, that Mrs Black has Sirius under some sort of spell?" he asks tiredly.
"Dunno," says Peter. "Just that she must have seriously raised the stakes. James thinks blackmail."
"Yes, but James is a drama queen," says Remus. "Look, we told Sirius to behave. Why are we now so bloody surprised it worked?"
"You know how odd it is to be the thinker in a conversation with you?" says Peter irritably. "We're surprised because Sirius doesn't bloody listen. Ever. It's just not his thing."
He all but shoves his untouched pie at Remus. "Now eat this pie your mum made for you, you tit, we'll need your brain at full capacity tomorrow."
When he was little, Remus usually woke in his own bed after a transformation, a little dazed and confused but otherwise fine. The wolf was just a cub then, more interested in playing than fighting, almost a dream, except for the scars he left. He later realised that it was his mum who carried him upstairs right after the full moon set.
Now that he's sixteen and almost a head taller than Hope Lupin, he wakes curled up in a corner of the cage underneath a pile of worn blankets. As always, the cage is unlocked already and sunlight streams down from the open door at the top of the staircase, and he can smell the breakfast that his mum keeps warm in the oven. She doesn't watch over him anymore as he sleeps it off, or worse, inspects him for wounds unless it's very bad. As an adolescent boy, it's just one of those things.
The pain still burrowed deep in his bones tells him that he's woken earlier than usual, and now that he's reluctantly paying attention to his surroundings, he can hear flapping. A very sceptical brown owl is hovering outside the cage, unwilling to come closer.
When he finally manages to fix her with tired eyes, she drops a letter and flutters off.
Remus is not a morning person. The first thought that goes through his head is, Wonder if Witch Weekly is covering Day Three of the Wedding of the Decade, which even under the circumstances, he finds a bit odd.
Then he remembers.
Well, then, he thinks, mind over matter and all that. He throws the blankets off and struggles into a sitting position. When the inevitable light-headedness has settled, he inspects his hands and arms, gingerly feels his face. No immediately visible injuries, good, that will keep his mum happy. He stretches, but only gets halfway; something in his chest is definitely not where it's supposed to be. All right, then. Shallow breaths for now. His legs feel bruised. He'll walk like an old man today and fall asleep in an armchair at three in the afternoon, but other than that, the wolf has been kind.
He stands up and winces. What kind of idiot wolf drags his feet over the concrete floor? He collects his trousers and shirt from where he's folded them up the night before, and somehow wriggles into them with all the urgency of a slow-moving glacier, before bending down outside the cage (ouch) to pick up the letter.
Out fall a slip of paper - just a scrawl in Peter's untidy hand - Dogsitting. Quick as you can, Moony – and a little bag that contains what he assumes is Floo powder. His friends have long since picked up on the fact that the Lupins are kind of poor.
Remus has half a mind to ignore the note until a later time when he feels a little more human and a little less like something the cat dragged in. Then he remembers that these morons spent three years becoming Animagi for him. He probably should make an effort, he thinks, and all but crawls up the staircase.
Upstairs, in the hallway, there's a mirror. Here, he rights himself, checks his reflection for bruises, scratches, blood. There's nothing he can do about his complexion, which suggests corpse, but he drags two hands through his hair, making it lie marginally flatter. As upright as he can, he walks to the kitchen.
"Morning, mum," he says. His mother sits at the breakfast table, reading Witch Weekly again.
"Morning, love," she says, regarding him over the top of her magazine. "Didn't expect you yet. How are you feeling?"
"Okay," he lies, resisting the temptation to lean against the doorframe. Apart from everything else that's wrong, the idiot wolf hasn't slept all night.
"These vitamins really seem to make a difference," says Hope. "I was so sceptical!"
"Me, too," says Remus, making a mental note to let the vitamin C capsules on his nightstand vanish before Hope finds them.
"I need to go out today," he says.
Hope looks him up and down. She doesn't really forbid things anymore, now that he's sixteen and all, but today she seems to have to hold herself back. "Do you really think it can't wait a day?" she says.
"Your hunch was right, mum," he says. "Apparently Sirius got himself into some sort of trouble at that wedding. I need to go see if he's okay."
She nods slowly. "And you're sure he'd do the same for you?"
"He doesn't have to, does he?" says Remus with a tired smile. "Because I don't have a crazy person for a mother."
Hope is taken aback at this, and he regrets his honesty almost immediately. Whatever is going on in the Black household, it is not talked about, at least not in front of grown-ups. Not least because so far, they've proven absolutely useless.
"Your father is coming home today," says Hope.
"Say hello to him from me, will you," he says. "I might stay the night at James's."
He admonishes himself. He shouldn't be so angry, after all, they're all pretending they're a completely normal family. And for Lyall Lupin, that means frequent work expeditions. But as much as Remus strives to be a normal kid, he strongly believes that leaving his Muggle mother to deal with a werewolf on her own is just bloody careless, and he's told Lyall as much years ago.
"You'll have breakfast, though, will you?" says Hope. "It's still warm."
"Are you kidding?" he says. "Been looking forward to breakfast since I woke up. Let me just hop in the shower first."
It will be a cold day in hell, he thinks, should he ever leave the house after a full moon without at least a shower and a breakfast, in that order. Sirius Black in some sort of undefined trouble is unfortunately too common to disturb his routine.
In the shower, unwatched, he turns the water as hot as it goes, closes his eyes, and leans against the wall. Lets the water wash over him, a million pinpricks on his still sensitive skin. Lets the heat numb the dull burn in his limbs. Lets the soap take away the stink of the wolf, at least for another month. The skin on his back and shoulders stings, telling him the night has been rougher than he'd thought. It always is, when he's in the cage.
When he comes back down, he is marginally more awake and wearing clean clothes. His hair is still soaking wet, because he hasn't quite managed to lift his arms enough to towel it dry, but other than that, he feels vaguely human again. Hope is still in the kitchen and there's a steaming plate on the breakfast table. Full English. Nice.
He snatches up a piece of toast and butters it. He's more interested in meat this time of the month, and privately wishes it weren't fried quite so thoroughly, but he has long ago decided it's best to at least appear civilised at all times in front of his mum. Including two hours after moonset.
"About your friend Sirius," says Hope, when he's halfway through his breakfast and liberally applying coffee to his fatigued brain. It's not working.
"What about him?"
"His mum, really. I have never in my life heard you call someone crazy like you meant it," says Hope.
He swallows. "I suppose not," he says.
"Do you think Sirius should be living with his parents?" says Hope.
"How do you mean?" he says carefully.
"I mean," says Hope, just as delicately, "is there some sort of authority we need to alert?"
"Mum – " he says.
Remus wonders if there is a point in denying it, the thing that they never name, the goings-on at Grimmauld Place, if only because he has a feeling he himself shouldn't know about it.
Only years of living in close quarters have tipped him off to all the things the teachers don't notice, or don't put together. Sirius gets into fights like other people shake hands, and he has the bruises to prove it, but why would there be any on the back of his neck right after Christmas break? And then there's the talking in his sleep, the borderline junior delinquency, and now, the inexplicable will to smile on the Black family photographs. It's just fragments, it's -
"Abuse," says Hope quietly, "if it's that, is not something you kids need to sort out among yourselves. We're here to help."
For a moment, it seems so obvious. His mum is a social worker. This is her job. Let her take over, let her swoop in and fix this, this impossible, unnameable thing that she just named. Let Sirius never go back to Grimmauld Place in his life.
Yeah, well, he thinks bitterly. If the Blacks were a broken Muggle family living in a council estate, maybe. But imagining his Muggle social worker mum going up against one of the most powerful wizarding families in Great Britain… He wonders how to explain this so she understands: This bone-headed traditionalism. This family-knows-best. And worst: The lack of laws for this.
He's researched it all years ago.
"I don't think there's anything you can do," he says. "You said it. They're posh. It won't stick." Uncomfortably, he adds, "It might make them worse."
"What, being challenged?" she says.
"Yes," he says, despite himself. "Dad told you. I told you. They can be very –"
He doesn't complete the sentence when he sees her hand sink, the one that is still holding her copy of Witch Weekly. She tries, she really tries, he thinks. Despite the animosity, the condescension, the werewolf that got her son. She tries. And they don't. They don't try at all. It's not fair.
"I'll ask Lyall," she says. "And Remus – you know it's always a little difficult, having your friends over – but if he needs a place to stay..."
"Thank you, mum," says Remus, and means it. "I'll tell him. I'm sure he'll appreciate it."
He'll sure appreciate the irony, Remus thinks. That Hope Lupin, a woman who has met Sirius exactly twice, shows more motherly instincts towards him than the woman who birthed him.
Remus stumbles rather than steps out the Potters' fireplace. For a moment, he holds on tightly to the mantelpiece while he concentrates hard on not throwing up on the fancy hearthrug.
Somewhere in the house, he can hear muffled shouting, not an uncommon occurrence in the Potter household over summer. Then he notices James's father on the armchair in front of the fire, who regards him over the edge of his newspaper.
"Good morning, Mr Potter," he says politely, still clutching the edge of the mantelpiece.
The shouting is coming closer.
"Morning, Remus," says James' father. "Rough night?"
Remus has long suspected Mr Potter thinks of him as some sort of party fiend, the amount of times he's come in bleary-eyed and croaky-voiced. Fortunately, the old man seems to approve.
"I wish, Mr Potter," he says. "Just got over the flu."
"Ah, yes," says Mr Potter. "James mentioned you were taken ill."
Faintly, he can hear James' voice through the mansion's thick walls. "Sirius, you pillock, stop right where you are –"
James' father nods towards the door. "They're upstairs," he says, then holds a hand up to his ear. He doesn't hear so well anymore. "Well, I guess they're downstairs now."
A considerable amount of noise is now coming from the hall.
"Thank you, Mr Potter," says Remus, and considers letting go of the mantelpiece for a bit. He takes another shallow breath and collects himself.
Then the double door to the hall is flung open and before Remus knows it, he is knocked over by a maniac in a leather jacket.
To be continued.
Thank you so much for reading and commenting! In this chapter, things become a bit clearer… and, of course, slightly more horrible. Your feedback, as always, is very welcome!
As the air is thoroughly knocked out of him, Remus lets out an involuntary yelp. It is, however, drowned out in the kerfuffle.
"Stop, Sirius, you great big idiot!" James comes running, Peter on his heels. Sirius, who has gone sprawling all over Remus in the collision, is already scrambling to his feet, grabbing for the bowl of Floo powder on the mantelpiece.
"Let me go, you bastard, I need to –"
"Moony, sit on him!"
Remus, currently on the floor in a painful heap, sends James a withering look meant to convey that he is in no mood to sit on anyone, thank you.
The flames in the fireplace burn high and green as Sirius throws himself into them. "Number twelve, Grimmauld Pla –" he barks.
But James Potter hasn't been made captain of the Quidditch team because he's a slow weakling with bad reflexes. Finally catching up with Sirius, he grabs him by the cuff of his leather jacket und throws him unceremoniously to the ground, twists his arm up so he can't escape, and then, yes, sits on his legs for good measure.
"Morning, Remus," he says.
"Told you to sit on him."
Still more or less sprawled on the floor, Sirius's crazy face at eye level – and to think he'd missed the prat! –, Remus rubs his head. Admittedly, it's mostly to distract himself from the pain in his ribs.
"You were serious?" he says.
Remus's choice of words has both him and James regard Sirius wearily, but the inevitable joke is not forthcoming.
"Is he sick?" Remus asks James after a moment.
With his Plan A thoroughly foiled, Sirius turns to begging. "Prongsy, I need to go," he says. "Please. I can't stay away any longer, they'll miss me."
James twists his arm a little higher. "Pull the other one, mate," he says.
Remus hoists himself carefully into a more or less sitting position and looks up at Peter, who has come up behind James. "Dogsitting?" he mouths.
Peter shrugs. "Literally."
In the background, Mr Potter is clearing his throat.
Somehow, Remus has forgotten all about James's dad reading his newspaper in the cosy armchair by the fireplace. By the looks James and Peter are sharing, so have they.
"It seems to me," says Mr Potter, "that, if Sirius feels that strongly about wanting to go home, he should be allowed." He sounds rather confused as to why this is even an issue.
Remus thinks back to his conversation with his mother. They have got to stop doing this in front of parents, it'll just bewilder them.
"Thank you, Fleamont," says Sirius haughtily from the ground. "This is exactly what I was –"
"Sirius, most brilliant of all my friends," says James conversationally, "you know what happened to the last chap who tried to Floo into Grimmauld Place without the keyspell?"
Sirius deflates a little. "No," he says fairly. "And neither do you!"
"Correct," says James. "Because it's been two years and they never found the guy. Now tell me, do you, Sirius Black, have your wand with you?"
"No," says Sirius. "Damn it!"
"No, you don't," confirms James, "because you forgot to bring it, you berk!" At the last word, he jabs his friend sharply in the ribs with a finger.
Remus shares a helpless look with Mr Potter.
"So maybe we can all go upstairs now," says James, "where you can think up your next escape plan in peace – maybe one that won't kill you, this time – while Peter and I explain everything to our friend Remus here. How's that sound?"
That seems to appease Sirius. "Oh, all right," he says, and then he cranes his head to properly focus on Remus for the first time. A wide and, under the circumstances, rather disconcerting smile spreads over his face.
"Morning, Remus," he says.
"Morning, Sirius," says Remus with all the dignity he can muster.
"Didn't mean to knock you over."
Remus takes a shallow breath. "It's quite all right," he says.
Then Sirius allows James and Peter to march him out of the room, both with a death grip on each of his arms. Remus hobbles after them.
"Oy, dad," says James, when they're at the door. "Sirius will have to stay here for a bit, is that okay?"
Mr Potter just nods in confusion.
Upstairs, in James Potters' bedroom, Remus lets himself sink onto a floor cushion, gingerly leaning his aching back against the wall. Despite all that, he reflects it's a nice change of pace, not being the centre of everyone's attention on the day after the moon.
He tries to give Sirius a discrete once-over – not that he doesn't have that one down to an art, ha, ha – but Sirius's appearance betrays very little. The haircut really does suit him, but it's probably not the sort of thing Remus should be noticing right now. Still. Can't fault him for having eyes. The undercut is captivatingly elegant, or maybe it just the novelty. Gryffindor house tends to follow Muggle fashion, and a hairstyle that unapologetically deliberate hasn't been seen there in close to a decade.
Other than that, Sirius looks a lot better than Remus feels. No bruises or anything that he can see, which is a relief. Only Sirius's leather jacket is torn in some places, and his hands are fairly scratched up, like he lost a fight with a thorny shrub. The marks contrast brightly with his pale skin, but they look accidental, and Remus prides himself on being an expert on that sort of thing.
Remus watches in confusion as James expertly conjures a pair of handcuffs – what? – and attaches one end to Sirius's left wrist – what? - the other to a heating pipe. Sirius lets it happen with a sort of stoic calm.
"I've missed something, haven't I," says Remus finally.
"Did you ever," says James darkly. His expressive face betrays barely controlled anger. "Can you keep a secret?" he adds.
Remus pauses, but apparently he's heard correctly. "Are you fucking kidding me right now?" he says. "I am the king of secrets, you prat."
"Good," says James. "Because no-one can know. At least until this wanker here –" he gives Sirius a light punch in the head – "is a little more coherent and can tell us how he wants this handled."
Peter throws Remus a magazine. "Page twelve and fourteen," he says.
"Witch Weekly again?" says Remus. It seems to be that sort of day.
"Surprisingly informative," says Peter.
It's an extra edition, devoted to Day 2 of the Wedding of the Decade. It takes Remus a moment to realise that this would be yesterday, but then, he's been out of the loop.
Page twelve is a photograph of Sirius in the sprawling rose garden of Malfoy Manor, talking animatedly to a group of girls Remus vaguely recognises as seventh-year Slytherins. Above them hangs last night's full moon.
Page fourteen has a shot of the luxurious ballroom of Malfoy Manor. In it, the Heir of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black is dancing with the Maid of Honour. On his face is an amused look as she is whispering something in his ear.
The Maid of Honour happens to be Bellatrix Lestrange.
As always when Remus catches a glimpse of her, he can't get over how similar the cousins look. Both dark-haired, both pale-skinned, both the same height to within a fraction of an inch, even though in Bella's case this is achieved by weapon-grade stiletto heels. But apart from that, what links them is the air of carefully cultivated aristocracy, the hint of madness. Neither lets the other out of their eye, ever, and that is probably why they dance so well together.
"Dance lessons have paid off well for our Pads," Remus observes.
"Yeah, really makes you wish the Yule Ball was still a thing, doesn't it?" says Peter sarcastically. "Much as we'd all like to see Padsy here prancing about in a ballroom, are you starting to see the problem?"
Remus hates to admit to himself that he is rather more confused than before. "What happened?" he says to the room in general.
Across the room, Sirius is merely resting his head against the wall. The expression on his face is oddly blank.
"James," says Peter. "James? He's doing it again."
"It's fine," says James with a shrug. "He's tied up."
From his position besides Sirius, James jumps to his feet to retrieve something from on top of the cluttered heap that, Remus assumes, must be hiding his desk. Again, Remus can't help but think he's never seen James as angry as this.
"Imagine, Remus" says James. "This morning, and by the way, it was at the arsecrack of dawn, I mean, seriously, it was like four in the bloody a.m. and me bolt upright in my bed. Because this genius here," he punches Sirius again – "decided to crash his motorbike in our garden. Mum's dog roses will never be the same."
That, at least, explains the scratches all over Sirius's hands.
"You okay, mate?" he asks.
Sirius is staring off into nothing.
"He came all the way from London? On the motorbike?" he asks James. "Has he gone mental?"
"I know, right?" says James with an expansive wave of his arm. "Show-off. He was a bit confused so I put him to bed. When I was looking for his wand, I found this in his pocket."
He hands the piece of parchment to Remus. It looks like if it was hastily torn out of an ancient tome. Written on it, in elegant, Gothic handwriting that betrays years of calligraphy lessons, is a note.
Looks like I've pushed a few too many buttons this summer and got myself Imperius'ed for the wedding. I think whoever cast it is asleep right now, but the curse might come back on and I don't know how long it'll hold.
I'm calling in all the favours you ever owed me, and all the favours you ever will. Don't let me go back. Keep me away from fireplaces, Portkeys, and broomsticks. Best give the bike a good kicking, too. I'll probably fight you, so, apologies in advance.
Wedding was fun, though, so there's that.
"Well, shit," says Remus. He can't find a more perfect expression. "Is this a trick? Do we know he wrote that?"
Sirius's face remains blank.
"It's his handwriting," says James. "I'd recognise that twirly shit everywhere."
True, of course, thinks Remus, that's why Sirius has been tasked with the actual writing of the Marauder's Map. Makes it look old-timey and mysterious.
"Is it true, then?" asks Remus carefully. "The Imperius?"
Sirius looks over at him, and pins him with a stare from his clear grey eyes that is orders of magnitudes saner than anything he's displayed today. He looks like he's fighting something, and losing. "You're clever, figure it out," he says.
"He said it was true, last night," says James.
"But that's - it's an Unforgivable, that's -"
"A lifetime in Azkaban," says James. "Yeah, we know."
"Why?" says Remus.
"Fuck me if I know," says James, scratching his head with his wand so hard sparks are flying.
"Come on, guys," Peter pipes up. "Wedding of the Decade. It's obvious! Three days of ceremonies. All the important families in the bloody country. Can't have our resident eckletricity expert throw a spanner in the works, right? Best make sure he's on his best behaviour."
"But still," says Remus, "the Imperius… Jesus. Do we know who it was?"
"I was thinking Bellatrix," says James, running a distracted hand through his hair. "She's Maid of Honour at this thing, after all, she'll want it running smoothly… but something tells me she wouldn't have made such a meal of it."
He sees Remus's sceptical look. "Come on, Wolfie, he only flew three hours on a flying motorbike. I'd say a meal was made of it, yeah."
"Sirius?" probes Remus.
Sirius's expression is pained, as if something is preventing him from speaking. "I don't know," he says, finally. "I don't know who it was!"
"Reminds me," says Remus. "How did the Muggle Studies O.W.L. go down?"
Sirius says nothing.
James shrugs. "About as well as you'd expect," he says.
"Has he said anything?"
"No," says James, in a tone that makes Remus quite glad he isn't holding anything breakable. "But I heard it through the mirror."
With the excitement that is keeping Sirius from hopping on the Knight Bus, they forget to have lunch, and Remus misses most of the afternoon because he is curled up asleep in one of the Potters' disgustingly comfy armchairs.
The odd thing is that the curse is not active all the time. Remus's best guess is that whoever is casting it is busy at the wedding. But that, he concludes gloomily, only means that the curse will be in full force tomorrow, unless they figure out how to stop it.
It hits again in the early evening. Apparently James' conjuration skills are not quite as refined when he's angry, because Sirius shakes off the handcuffs and runs for it, makes it all the way to the Potters' broomstick shed this time before they catch up with him.
"God damn it, Padfoot," James says, once again sitting on his best friend, "have you tried resisting it? It's been done before, you know."
Sirius looks positively murderous. "It just comes on randomly, you twat, it's not like I can prepare for it."
Sirius has never been one for resisting sudden impulses, even if they're not his own. For Remus, all this running after Sirius is a bit more physical than he prefers on the day after the moon. He keeps lagging behind, feeling useless.
Even the thinking seems to have been taken over by others.
"Padfoot," Peter says thoughtfully, regarding their struggling friend.
"Yeah?" says Sirius from the ground.
"No, I mean, Padfoot." He looks around whether any parents are in sight. "Maybe the dog's harder to control. Have you tried transforming?"
"Oh," says Sirius. "I - no. I mean, what if they notice?"
James and Peter, the other two animagi in the vicinity, exchange a look. "Why would they notice?" says James. "It's not a Legilimens. Might be worth a try, mate."
"Someone has a direct link to my brain, and by the way, that is a nauseating thought," says Sirius. "I mean, who knows what they'll notice, right?"
"If the dog scarpers," Remus points out, still exhausted, "we're going to have a real job running after him."
James grimaces. "Best not give him ideas, then."
Sirius is too edgy to have dinner with the others. Then Peter goes home for the night because six owls over dinner indicate that his mother has reached fretting threshold. Remus stays on in his place, because the thought of leaving James alone with the problem seems laughably disloyal.
For the night, James throws two mattresses on the floor, and, after thinking through the logistics, he and Remus cuff Sirius between them. To say it is an uncomfortable night is a massive understatement.
"Handcuffed in bed," says Sirius, staring at the ceiling. "Not enjoying this as much as I thought I would."
"You can talk," says Remus. "You're not the one cuffed to a crazy person."
"Though I can feel you up if that makes you feel better," offers James from the other side.
"Tossers," says Sirius.
From countless nights in the Hogwarts dormitory, Remus knows that Sirius is a very active sleeper. He tosses and turns and talks. Being forced to lie flat on his back in the gap between two mattresses is probably his idea of hell.
To be fair, it's quickly becoming Remus's idea of hell, too. Everything is too hot. Sirius is way too close; at least usually his disorderly conduct is somewhat muffled by happening half a room and two sets of heavy curtains away.
Remus has long-since kicked away the blanket, but his ribs are still aching and he can't get comfortable. On the other side, James seems to struggle similarly, and not blessed with as much patience as Remus is, he eventually has enough.
"Sirius, I love you like a brother, but if you don't calm down, shut up, and lie still right now," he says in his Quidditch captain voice, "I will make you."
"Oh yeah?" says Sirius. "If I can't do it, what makes you think you can?"
That does it. James pounces, Sirius yelps, but he is quickly pinned underneath his best friend. At least that takes care of the excessive movement, but Remus has a feeling the reprieve is going to be temporary.
Then James lowers his head and actually – Remus blinks, but apparently he is not dreaming, and this is happening – licks Sirius's face.
"What the –," says Sirius. "James! I'm so disappointed! Licking people is my thing!"
"Promised your mum, didn't I?" says James. "At King's Cross. Told her I'll lick you whenever I like."
"Wherever. You said wherever," says Sirius, and waggles his eyebrows suggestively, but he's laughing his head off, and so is James.
"You pillock!" Sirius says. "She looked like she was going to make me take off my boots and feed them to you!"
"The same ones she told me I was not fit to lick in the first place?"
James is now trying to tickle him, but he himself is laughing too hard, and in any case, Sirius is fighting back.
"You twat," says James. "You're such a bloody moron! It gets worse every year! Look at this stupid mess you got yourself into this time."
James starts poking. "Seriously, what are we supposed to do with you now? You keep running away! Just look at yourself! Look at your life! What a stupid bloody mess you're in!"
He's laughing like he's forgotten how to stop.
"Handcuffed in bed, is all I'm saying," says Sirius. "Guess I had worse summers."
"God, is this ridiculous," says James. "I want to cry."
"Welcome to my life," says Sirius. "Now get off me, because frankly I feel you've been sitting on me way too much in the past twenty hours."
"You'll just start kicking us again," says James. "I think I'm going to stay like this for a while. Dogsitting."
"That joke, "says Sirius, "was funny exactly once. I will have to revoke your licking privileges."
"Finally, he remembers his proper place," says James. "Your mum will be so proud."
"Guys," says Remus. "Guys? No offense, but between him licking everyone and his, well, mum, I'm getting uncomfortable over here."
"Oh, I'm sorry," says James. "We seem to have forgotten about you, Moony." He looks down at Sirius, and Sirius winks back at him, and Remus remembers sharply what it means to be best friends with two people who are best friends with each other.
"Don't you dare!" Remus says.
Too late. They pounce together, Sirius expertly leveraging their shared handcuff to pin down Remus's wrist – and why had he expected anything else to come from that, Remus thinks. One is tickling him, the other is, as he is unfortunately unable to ignore, licking him across the face.
It's an alarming mix of funny and terrifying for about ten seconds. Then James manages to knee him in the chest and something shifts painfully, probably a rib, and he inadvertently lets out a low groan of pain.
At least that stops the attack, Remus thinks numbly, and then Sirius sits up next to him.
"Moony, you wanker," he says.
"What did I do?" says Remus, and wipes his face unapologetically on Sirius's pyjama sleeve.
"Prongs, how did we forget?" says Sirius.
"Dunno," says James. "So much going on. Sorry, mate."
"I thought I saw the full moon last night. Why didn't you say something, Moony?"
"Oh, I don't know, maybe I enjoy going through my life without having people fussing over me," groans Remus.
"Are you okay?" says Sirius. "You're not hurt, are you?"
"You will be, if you don't shut up," says Remus. "As I just pointed out, I –"
"He's fine," says James with a shrug.
"That's the spirit, wolf boy," says Sirius. "I guess. Look, Prongsy, he's managing full moons without us now."
"Yeah, soon he'll be all grown up, it's touching," says James. "Now shut up and sleep, Padfoot."
It's not an easy night, but Remus drifts off some time after midnight, which is why it's especially annoying to be awoken at the first light of dawn. Sirius is turning this way and that, clearly uncomfortable. He's shaking. Worse, he's talking.
Through half-closed eyes, Remus sees James sitting up, an expression of deep worry on his face. Seeing Remus awake, he raises a finger to his lips.
Sirius talks a lot in his sleep and has taken many pillows to his face for that little habit, but it's usually some flavour of incomprehensible. Still, might be worth trying to listen this time, Remus thinks.
Nobly, knobbly, black an' ancient, most of house. Sirius laughs in his sleep.
James looks as confused as Remus feels.
Tainted, mutters Sirius. Foul, rotten 'n' spoiled. Tree 'n the fam'ly cancer.
It's just his mother's tirades, Remus realises. Just echoes of crazy, only his enunciation classes seem to have left him in his sleep. That, and grammar.
"That's quite enough of that," mutters James. With his free hand, he strokes Sirius's hair. Sirius jerks back initially, but quickly relaxes.
"You're never going back," James says softly. "Not as long as I live."
At least the fidgeting stops. And most of the talking. It's a start.
"Moony," says James. "Moony."
"Awake," mumbles Remus. "Did I just – did I just see you scratch his ears?"
James shrugs slowly. "Works on Padfoot," he says. "Moony, what do we do?"
James looks exactly as helpless as Remus feels. Whatever Remus had mentally prepared himself for when he woke up this morning, it wasn't being handcuffed with James to their best friend so he wouldn't run away. His life has not prepared him for this.
"I don't know what to do," adds James. "How does this work? What if this never stops?"
"It's bound to, isn't it?" says Remus, clinging to what he knows. "Even well-cast spells go stale after a while."
"But when?" says James. "He can't go back. He'll go mad in there, or die. I'm not even fucking joking."
"My mum said we need to let the grown-ups handle this," says Remus. "But she knows nothing. Only that he's in trouble."
"Yeah, so does my dad," says James. "But we can't go around accusing the Blacks of an Unforgivable. It'll never stick –"
"It'll just make them worse–"
" – and even if it does stick –"
"Lifetime in Azkaban," says Remus.
"Serves them right," says James darkly.
"I don't know," says Remus, and shudders. "Dementors give me the creeps."
James exhales. "Yeah, me too." His free hand is still stroking Sirius, absent-mindedly, maybe to calm himself down as much as his friend. "I'm scared, Moony."
By the next morning, it becomes clear that James's assessment of the situation is spot-on.
To be continued.
In this chapter, the Blacks raise the stakes a bit, and Remus discovers a new way in which being a werewolf sucks. Thank you for reading and commenting, it makes my day :)
In view of the steep increase in the number of teenage boys in her house, the ever-patient Mrs Potter has decided to make pancakes for breakfast. It's a bit of a daring Americanism in her otherwise strictly English kitchen, but, in her own words, "It's not like Sirius visits often. Let me spoil him a bit."
At the breakfast table, Remus busies himself with today's press review. Coffee in hand, he flips through another Witch Weekly special edition – Day 3 of the Wedding of the Decade, covering yesterday's Dazzling Finale – to find out how the Black family is handling the suspicious absence of their eldest son.
There is, surprisingly, a lone photograph of Sirius, and he shows the others.
"That's from the first day," says Sirius. He is the only one not displaying any enthusiasm for breakfast. "I mean, just look at the cravat. I know they think ordinary people are idiots, but this is ridiculous."
"People don't really over-analyse Witch Weekly's nobby wedding spreads," Remus reminds him. "They'll fall for this."
In the photograph, Sirius is relaxing in his shirt-sleeves, with the ridiculous cravat loosened, giving the impression he's wearing different clothes than the two days before. It's a close-up, too, obscuring the lack of change in the scenery. Remus idly wonders if the Blacks are employing their own press relations officer.
The real-life Sirius at the kitchen table is not relaxed. He is staring at the pancake on his plate as if it had personally offended him.
"Come on, Sirius, have a pancake," says James. "My mum made them extra. Because she adores you. You're breaking her heart."
"That's probably enough, James," says Euphemia Potter. "Sirius, love, won't you have a pancake?"
"Don't feel like eating," Sirius says through gritted teeth.
"You're a growing boy, you've got to eat," says James through a mouthful of pancake. They really are extraordinarily good.
It's Peter who puts it together first. He's been back since a quarter hour ago, when he emerged from the fireplace still in the middle of placating his own mother.
"Actually," says Peter now, "when was the last time you ate something?"
"Dinner last night," says Sirius gloomily.
Then Remus notices it, too. "We had dinner," he says. "You said you were too edgy to eat."
"We forgot to have lunch because you were chasing the Knight Bus halfway to Devon," Peter points out helpfully.
"Breakfast?" decides Sirius.
"You had a cup of coffee and a Jammie Dodger," says James. "Not sure that qualifies." He shares a wary look with Remus and Peter.
"Huh." Sirius considers this, hypnotising the pancake in front of him. "Not hungry," he says.
"Not even a little bit?" says Mrs Potter kindly. "I know they're your favourite. The secret is real vanilla pods, you know."
"Oh, all right," says Sirius. "Since it's you."
Remus gets the feeling that no Imperius in the world is going to make Sirius deny Mrs Potter a wish. Sirius carefully cuts a tiny corner off his pancake, dips it in syrup, and puts it in his mouth.
Then Sirius is choking and he politely expels the piece of pancake into his napkin with all the poise his Black upbringing allows him. "Nope," he says. "Sorry, Euphemia."
"Oh dear," says Mrs Potter. "Are you ill?"
"Little bit, mum," says James with a sigh. "Little bit."
Sirius has so far taken all this with a grim sort of acceptance – or possibly denial – , but by lunch, even he seems worried. He's eyeing the sandwich in front of him with ill-veiled animosity.
"So that's how they'll get me," he says. "That is so pedestrian."
They've found he can have some water, but not too much. Black coffee is a struggle. Everything else – and they've tried everything else, including, now, a sandwich - is out of the question.
At least this seems to rob him of the energy to run away. In the grand scheme of things, it's not a huge comfort.
After lunch, they're all out in the Potter's vast garden, lounging in the shade of an apple tree, and Remus picks up last night's line of reasoning. "It'll have to wear off eventually," he says. "All spells do. They're renewing the Enchanted Ceiling at Hogwarts every year over summer, or so I've heard."
"And will it wear off before or after I've starved to death?" says Sirius. "Come on guys, this is balls. I'll have to go back eventually. Best get it over with." He throws an apple at the Potter's Quidditch pole with surprising force.
"Shut up, that's the curse talking," says James dismissively. "You're never going back there, ever, again. I'm repeating myself, aren't I." He scratches his head.
"I appreciate the sentiment, pal," says Sirius, "but I'm bloody starving." He throws another apple.
"Screw you, that's future apple crumble you're smashing against the pole," James points out.
"Turn the knife in the wound, will you," says Sirius, whose destructive mood seems to have come to stay.
"They don't want to kill him," observes Peter from the sidelines.
"Excuse me, mate, they're making pretty good progress on that front," says James. He sounds miserable.
"He's the heir and whatnot," says Peter, who seems to have an alarming grasp on these pureblood politics. "Killing him is the last thing they want. They just want him to behave. I'll bet they'll change their tactics as soon as it becomes clear this one's not working."
He bites into a green apple with a crunch. "'Fraid you'll just have to sit it out, mate."
"We'll need to find out more," says Remus. "About this bloody curse, I mean. It's a bit obscure, but someone's got to know –"
"Yeah, well, unfortunately we can't really go around asking questions about unforgivable dark magic without raising some suspicion," says Peter.
"Someone we can trust," insists Remus.
"Who do you have in mind, Dumbledore?" says James. "Because I thought we agreed we weren't escalating this just yet. Dumbledore's definitely escalating."
"Yeah, well, my attitude towards Azkaban has vastly improved in the last twelve hours," says Remus testily.
"Not Dumbledore," says Sirius darkly, picking up another apple. "He didn't help the last time I asked."
"He does get busy," says Peter. "Big picture and all."
Sirius snorts. "You could call it that."
"Yeah, well, who else could we ask?" says James. "I swear, life would be easier if we'd ever had a marginally competent Defence teacher. I've actually given up on remembering their names, I just call them Moron One to Five."
His question is never answered, because a house-elf appears in front of them with a loud crack. James is startled so badly he knocks over his lemonade.
"Finally," says Sirius, a vicious grin spreading over his face. "Long time, no see."
"Kreacher has come to take Master Sirius home," says the house-elf. "Master Sirius will say goodbye to his friends now."
"How considerate," says Sirius. "Actually, I was hoping you'd come round. I'll need my wand and the bag underneath my bed." He waves a hand. "Off you pop."
It is clearly causing Kreacher pain to disobey a direct order, and under different circumstances, Remus would probably feel some sympathy.
"Mistress has instructed Kreacher not to return without Master Sirius," says the house-elf. "Ungrateful brat that he is."
Sirius sighs. "Yeah, I thought that sounded too easy," he says. "If you refuse to be useful, just go tell them they can kiss my –"
"Mistress says to tell you that dinner will be served at six," snarls Kreacher. "Master Sirius must be hungry by now."
These words are met with a very tense silence. Remus holds Sirius back by his sleeve. "It's not his fault," he says quietly.
"What do you know?" says Peter in a more dangerous tone than any of them had thought him capable. "Who did this? Why can't he eat?"
"Kreacher is being addressed by a half-blood," says Kreacher. "Kreacher will not dignify him with a response."
Peter gives Remus an incredulous look. What the hell, he mouths.
"Fine, I'll ask," says James. "Who did this, Kreacher, and why?"
"Kreacher is being addressed by a blood traitor…" says Kreacher, but with less conviction.
"And he will bloody well answer the blood-traitor!" says Sirius sharply.
"The family misses Master Sirius terribly," says Kreacher, fighting himself over each word, "and they want him to return to his rightful place."
"Not what I asked," said James. "Who did this? Who cast the Imperius curse?"
There is a long pause. "Kreacher does not know anything about the Imperius curse," says Kreacher.
"Is that true, Kreacher?" says Sirius.
"Kreacher does not know anything about the Imperius curse," Kreacher repeats. "And now Master Sirius will come with Kreacher."
It is the only warning they're given. The old house-elf charges towards Sirius, grabbing for his arm, clearly attempting to Apparate with him.
Then the elf falls backwards, and Remus realises he is the one who has his wand raised.
All of his usual rules – keep his head down, no magic over the summer, never, ever give the Ministry cause to investigate him more thoroughly – are momentarily forgotten. He reminds himself hastily that the Improper Use of Magic Office is chronically overworked and understaffed and almost never investigates underage magic in Pureblood households.
"Nice one, mate," says Sirius. "Though stunning spells don't tend to keep house-elves down for long."
He crouches over the house-elf's small figure. It is already stirring.
"Kreacher," he says. "You are not to take me home by side-along apparition or any other form of magic at your disposition. Is that understood?"
"Wait," says Peter. "Is that watertight? He's been told to bring you back no matter what, after all."
Sirius shrugs. "He can try using his powers of persuasion for all I care."
The house-elf sits up and glares at him as he's looking for loopholes. But it seems that his original instructions are not specific enough to override Sirius's direct order.
Unfortunately, his original instructions were not to return without Sirius, and that is why they now have a hostile, muttering house-elf dogging their every step. Sirius tries to order him to at least stay out of sight, but that just makes him lurk at the edge of their attention. It makes everyone jumpy.
It's also ridiculously hard to make plans now without being overheard. They've taken to writing each other notes, but it slows everything down. Not that they had brilliant ideas before Kreacher turned up, thinks Remus.
That night, Remus returns home for dinner, mostly because he feels guilty that his own mother is seeing so little of him in the two months of the year that she sees him at all. He also needs a change of clothes. Right now he's wearing a T-shirt of James's, but it's ridiculously short on him and he doesn't particularly care for Martin the Mad Muggle. Besides, James is already sharing his wardrobe with Sirius.
Of course, that means he has to see Lyall Lupin, too, and the weird ungrounded tension between them is usually at its worst shortly after the full moon. Remus is no fool, he knows his father blames himself for what happened when he was four – and really, he couldn't care less, now, because he's seen his best friends make careless, cruel mistakes and it doesn't make them bad people. But knowing where it comes from doesn't make it go away.
Tonight's dinner appears to be just as tense and pointless as every dinner with both his parents since he was fourteen or so. They're halfway through dessert when things get even more uncomfortable.
His mother clears her throat.
"We were talking," says Hope. "Your father and I. About your friend Sirius."
Remus swallows carefully. "Yeah?"
"The Potters, too," says Hope. "Owled this afternoon. They're very concerned. They say he ran away from home. They see he seems troubled and doesn't eat. Is that true, Remus?"
They don't know half of it, thinks Remus. Not even a twelfth.
"Yes," he says, because the alternative would be lying to his mother.
"What happened to him, Remus?" says his father. "Why did he run away?"
"Why are you asking?" says Remus carefully.
"Because we want to help," says Hope.
"If we can," says Lyall with a side glance at his wife.
"We are so happy that you found such good friends," says Hope. "He's a good boy, Sirius. Allow us to help him. Tell us what happened."
Remus hypnotises his pudding while racking his brain for the perfect answer: One that is both truthful, and will not send his parents on the metaphorical war path.
"He prefers people not to know," he says eventually.
"There's a time and a place for keeping secrets," says Hope.
Lyall, unfortunately, has his thinking face on. "So something did happen," he concludes. "Something his family did last weekend that made him run."
Sometimes Remus forgets his parents are clever, too. After all, they had a werewolf kid and managed to turn him into a bookworm.
"Yes," concedes Remus. "There was a specific incident. Please, I shouldn't –"
"Are they violent?" asks Hope.
Oh god, thinks Remus. Sirius is going to kill him. "No law against it, is there?" he says.
"So they are," says Hope. "Oh dear."
"I didn't say that," says Remus. "I mean, maybe. He doesn't talk about any of this, really."
Hope regards him with a look he knows well, the one that tells him to stop hiding truths inside technicalities.
"It wasn't that," says Remus, wishing more and more he had just put up with James Potter's ill-fitting, cartoon-sporting T-shirts, rather than help dissecting the specific type of abuse going on in the Black household.
Because, even after five years, he's not sure he understands any of this: Yes, there have been occasional bruises, rages, nightmares. But oddly, that's not what comes up when he thinks about this. The things he truly finds unbearable shouldn't even register. It is the chilling cold between Sirius and his mother when they meet on the train station. It's the lack of letters from Sirius during the summer. It's the way everyone agrees that a new haircut in a magazine photo is terrible news.
There is no love in that family, he thinks. Walburga Black regards her eldest son like a problem to be dealt with. As if his place in the family is all there is to him, and all the things that make him something more than a son, brother, heir need to be stomped out.
"Do they shout at him a lot?" says Hope. "Do they put him down? Insult him?"
There's unfortunately no denying that. "You heard his mum at the train station," Remus tells his pudding.
"That's them in public, huh?" says Hope. She exchanges a look with Lyall.
"Remus," she says gently, and from her tone and the general way this conversation is going, he realises instantly what she is about to ask. "I'm sorry I have to ask this," she says. "But was there every any –"
Well, Remus will be damned if he knows how to approach this topic except head-on. "Well, the Blacks were never opposed to a little bit of incest," he says brusquely.
His mother looks positively horrified, and he's instantly sorry.
"Though not before marriage, they're old fashioned," he says. "No, nothing of that sort that I know of. I'm sorry, mum. I'm taking this seriously. It's just so – argh!" The sudden burst of incoherence surprises even himself.
"Overwhelming?" says Hope gently. "Of course it is, Remus. That's why we're here."
"Magic, then," says Lyall, who has been silent for most of the conversation.
"Process of elimination," says his father. "You denied everything else. They hurt him with magic."
Remus swears under his breath. Sirius is definitely going to kill him.
"Hope said he looked strange on those wedding photographs," says Lyall.
"He did," says Hope. "Sort of… vacant. Here, have a look." She gets the Witch Weekly special edition from the kitchen counter and passes it to her husband.
"Do you know what kind of magic, Remus?" says Lyall, as he flips through the pages until he finds the one of Sirius with his brother, watching the fireworks.
Remus watches his father's face sink.
"No," says Remus. It is the first proper lie he's told today, but under the circumstances, he supposes it's for the greater good.
"Hope's right. He looks happy and vacant in these photos," says Lyall thoughtfully. "Unlike his brother, who I am told is far more content in this family."
"Does a bit, doesn't he," says Remus non-committally.
"And the Potters say he keeps trying to run home and he can't eat even though he wants to," says Lyall.
"I don't know of any spell with such diverse effects," says Remus.
"Son," says his father, regarding him over the rim of his glasses. "I do have an advanced degree in detecting Dark Magic, you know."
Lyall sighs. "It's the Imperius."
"Then what do you suggest?" snaps Remus. "Tell me, dad, what? Because you are not seriously proposing he take his family to court over this. You should know better than to unleash a fury you're not prepared to fight."
The look his father gives him almost makes him apologise, but so far Remus is holding up against that impulse.
"Then we need to be prepared better," says Hope. "Collect evidence. Collect people who are on his side."
Her husband, however, is still. Thinking.
"Suppose, for a moment," says Remus, "that this works. That the Ministry is going to investigate the matter at all, that they find out who it was, and that that person is sentenced and sent to Azkaban. His entire family will turn on him. Do you think he will ever be safe again?"
"I'm not arguing it won't be difficult –" says Hope.
"I'm arguing it will be impossible," says Remus. "I'm sorry, Mum. I'm sure Sirius would be grateful to know you guys on his side, but –" he grimaces. "I don't see this working. Any of it."
"Lyall, help me here," says Hope.
Lyall looks from her to Remus, and back. "Actually," he says gravely, "actually, I agree with Remus."
Remus is surprised. "Really? Since when?"
"That's not how we discussed it, Lyall," says Hope calmly. "What changed your mind?"
"The Imperius curse," says Lyall. "I'm sorry, Hope, but let me explain my position. Usually, when caught in a tight spot, the ancient families will leverage their money and connections to avoid a scandal. If this were a simple case of abuse –of course these are never simple, but bear with me – that could be played in your friend's favour, Remus. They could be persuaded to let him move out, even to minimise contact."
"Exactly," says Hope. "That's what you said. What is different about this?"
"The Imperius is considered an Unforgivable," says Lyall. "Even using it once warrants the worst punishment the wizarding world can administer. Why the curse is grouped with the killing and torturing curse, when aspects of its effect can be mimicked, for instance, by perfectly" – he coughs – "acceptable love potion, I don't know, but now it's a high-risk game for the Blacks."
He sighs. "And with stakes this high, they will not compromise. Once accused, they will fight. They will do everything they can to discredit your friend, Remus. They will bring up his past misdemeanours, of which I heard there were a few. If he ever did anything illegal in his life –"
Like becoming an unregistered Animagus, Remus thinks blankly.
"- it will come up," says Lyall. "Likewise, the company he keeps – if any of his friends have a background that polite society considers questionable, it will come up."
He looks at Remus.
"You're saying Sirius won't get justice because I'm a werewolf?" says Remus incredulously.
"No, I'm saying Sirius won't get justice because he'll be going up against the Blacks, and you will be collateral damage," says Lyall.
He pauses, carefully considering his words. "We didn't raise you to think of yourself first, of course," he adds, "but bear in mind that you, too, wouldn't have anything to gain from having your condition publicised. I'm sorry, Remus, but this could threaten your continuing education. Your chance of finding employment later."
"Surely they can't just get away with this, can they?" says Remus. "Why's it even called an Unforgiveable, then?"
He has all but forgotten that he has been arguing this position himself until five minutes ago. Somehow, the weird tension compels him to disagree with his father at all times. It's been like that since he was fourteen and he wonders if it will ever stop.
"That is your next problem," says Lyall. "It is one of those ancient dark curses whose usage cannot be proven, except by back-tracing a wand's previous spells – but that is not conclusive evidence, since the owner of the wand need not be the caster. And this is assuming the court will order such an analysis, because it is considered a serious breach of privacy. Similar concerns go for the use of Veritaserum – it will not be used based on a mere accusation."
"You are saying, then," says Remus, "that Sirius's only chance is getting the person who did this to admit to it? And face Azkaban?"
"Whenever I've seen one of the ancient families entangled in a court case," says Lyall, "it did not end in justice. I'm sorry, Remus, but your instinct was right. This is impossible."
"Then what do we do?" says Remus.
He can't put into words how much he wants this: To have someone just tell him what to do about this, some bullet-proof plan that means Sirius doesn't just have to take this lying down.
"A good question," says Lyall. "What was your plan? I'm assuming you and your friends have been talking about this."
Their plan, Remus has to admit, sounds absolutely laughable when he verbalises it in the Lupins' kitchen. "We hoped to just sit this out until the end of the summer," he admits. "He turns seventeen in November, he doesn't have to go back after that."
"That's six more weeks of summer," says Hope. "Am I right in thinking that his family can just force him to go home? They can lock him up, again, and do all the things that you two say are not prohibited by wizarding law? This whole situation is revolting."
"I don't know, Mum," Remus says. "I don't know what else to do. I'm just hoping they'll let it go eventually."
He pushes the dessert away from him. "I'm sorry, I need to get back. I'll just grab a few clothes from upstairs. How does Thursday morning sound?"
"Sounds good," says his mother. "Meanwhile, Lyall, explain to me again what just happened."
Remus takes the opportunity to flee. From the stairs, he hears his parents arguing calmly in the kitchen. Stuffing a handful of clothes and two heavy books into his rucksack, he goes back and forth on an idea he's had a few minutes ago.
Stupid, he thinks. This whole conversation already has the potential to blow up in their faces, if his mum decides to ignore his and Lyall's concerns. And then he thinks, but his dad is an expert, at least on some sort of Dark Magic, maybe he knows –
Coming downstairs, he sticks his head in the kitchen, and the argument dies off instantly. "Dad," he says into the silence. "A word?"
His dad and mum look at each other. This doesn't happen often. "Sure," says Lyall, and gets up from his chair.
"Bye mum," says Remus. "See you Thursday."
"Bye, love," says Hope. "Tell your friends I said hi, will you."
In the living room, Remus turns to his father, unsure what to say. But Lyall talks first.
"We want you to know that, whatever you choose, we will support you," says Lyall. "But remember the stakes are high." He sighs. "I wish I could have given you better advice."
"Actually, yes," says Remus. "What else do you know about the Imperius?"
Lyall looks surprised. "Like what?"
Remus hesitates. "Like, how do you stop it," he says finally.
"It's still active?" says Lyall, instantly concerned. "Remus, why didn't you say –"
"He's doing all right," Remus hurries to say, but then he thinks, that probably counts as a lie. "Most of the time," he qualifies.
"I've long since specialised in Dark Spirits and Apparitions," says Lyall. "I'm not an expert on the Imperius - it hasn't seen much use in the last decades - but to the best of my knowledge, the Imperius is not a curse that can be easily lifted. It has to be fought."
"He is fighting," says Remus. "I was just wondering, is there anything we can do to help –"
"As I said, I'm not an expert," says Lyall. "There aren't many experts on the Imperius , at least, none who are overall reputable. You could ask Professor Dumbledore –"
"Yeah," says Remus, feeling disappointed. "I'll bring this up with the guys. Thanks, Dad."
He takes out the small bag of Floo powder he borrowed from the Potters. Lyall notices, of course, but thankfully doesn't remark on it.
"Remus," he says after a moment of awkward silence. "You don't have to go back."
"How do you mean?"
"Remus," says Lyall. "You're bright, and you're brave. You're all we could have hoped for, and more. But you do have a blind spot when it comes to your friends."
Remus stills. If Lyall doesn't understand that his friends are everything to him, he thinks, then there's probably nothing left to say to each other.
"There's two possibilities here. If – if - he's fighting the Imperius successfully," says Lyall into the awkward silence, "your friend may become impulsive. He may follow whichever ideas break through the curse's compelling force. Remember some of his ideas?"
Remus could have sworn that he's only let about ten per cent of Sirius's ideas become common knowledge in the Lupin household. He shifts uncomfortably.
"And if he's not…" Lyall adds. "Well. The Imperius has never been used just for fun and games. I'm sorry to say it, but depending on who cast it, and why, he could actually be dangerous. Victims of the Imperius curse have been witnessed to perform complex Dark Magic –"
"He doesn't have his wand, though," says Remus. "They locked it up, he couldn't grab it in time."
"That's probably a blessing in disguise," says Lyall. "Still. I have half a mind to forbid you from going back -"
"- except that would just embarrass both of us," says Remus.
Remus wants to protest this, wants to point out that Sirius hasn't been a danger to anyone but himself – but he realises as he formulates it that the argument stands on very shaky grounds, just by virtue of the two words "so far". Curse it!
Well then. Remus supposes he will just have to do this the Gryffindor way. With blind courage and dumb luck. He hates it when that happens.
"You said you'd support me whatever I chose," he says.
"I do," says Lyall. "Just – be careful, all right?"
And that is decidedly not the Gryffindor way.
"Trust me," says Remus in what he hopes is a reassuring voice. "I'm a prefect."
With that, he steps into the fireplace.
To be continued.
Many thanks again for reading, commenting and leaving kudos! In this part, Sirius has a mad idea… and acts on it. Naturally. I'm always happy to hear what you think!
When Remus gets back to James's house after dinner, things haven't improved. James tells him that Sirius still hasn't eaten anything. It has now been forty hours since that Jammie Dodger. Suddenly, Remus feels guilty about the dessert he hasn't finished.
"How are you?" he asks Sirius tentatively.
"Ready to kill and eat Wormtail here," says Sirius gloomily.
They're huddled together on James's bedroom floor. Well, James and Remus and Peter are. Sirius has taken up residence on the window-sill.
"Hey!" says Peter. "Just because I'm not a skinny bastard –"
"I'm sure the curse will find a loophole for eating my friends," Sirius says. "Seriously, friends, I think we need to start accepting the possibility that I may have just lost this one."
"Kreacher is always ready to take Master Sirius home," says an unwelcome voice from outside the bedroom.
"And there's all the motivation I need to stay," says Sirius. He lights a new Silk Cut with the dog-end of his old one.
James has objected to the open window, of course, due to the very imminent threat Sirius might just run for it again – but he has objected even more to the cigarette stink quickly filling the room. And it's two storeys down, so in a way they're all counting on Sirius's sense of self-preservation.
Probably not one of their more brilliant ideas, Remus thinks.
They haven't made much head-way in figuring out how the curse works, except that it can be oddly specific at times. It is clear that the Blacks can't keep him from doing things they don't know about. Like smoking. Which is probably good, because it seems to take the edge off the hunger a bit, or so says Sirius. Remus suspects it might just be a trick to get James to let him smoke in the room.
"All right," says James. "We've had two full days. Have any of our plans actually progressed beyond 'let's wait this out and see'? Like, at all?"
There's an embarrassed silence in the room.
"Well, you know my plan," says Sirius, whose nervous hands are playing with his lighter now. Remus thinks he might be eyeing the door again. He, James, and Peter all have their wands within reach.
"Shut up, unknown Black speaking through my friend," says James testily. "Giving up is not a plan. Three to one, you're not going. Anyone got an actual plan?"
Sirius shrugs. "If you're this intent on playing the scheming mastermind," he says, "maybe keep in mind there's a spy outside the bedroom door who will run straight to my mother as soon as we come up with anything even remotely clever."
"Oh, yeah," says James gloomily.
Remus rolls his eyes, then casts an Imperturbable charm on the door. It's not like there's much of value for Kreacher to overhear. "There," he says. "Happy?"
"No wonder you made prefect," says Sirius. "Let's hear what you've got."
Remus looks at the others, but no-one is volunteering. Well, then. "My mum is proposing the nuclear option," he says. "Ministry investigation, trial, the whole shebang."
"Optimist, isn't she," says Sirius, obviously trying not to sound too sarcastic.
"She just wants to help," says Remus. "My dad, on the other hand, is advising caution. It's been a source of tension."
"Oh god, what's that even like in the Lupin household?" says Sirius with a grin. "Are they politely making well-reasoned arguments at each other? Do they take regular breaks to go to the library? Do they share a fag after?"
"How did your parents even figure this out, Moony?" says James suspiciously. "You didn't tell them, did you?"
"My dad just happens to be a world-renowned scientist in the field of Dark Magic," says Remus. "Besides, your parents owled mine, you pillock. Told them everything they needed to figure this out. We'll need to be more careful."
Speaking of which…
There's a crack outside the window. Sirius leans over to look down, an unholy grin on his face.
"I propose a different plan," he says. "Remember that house-elf sacrifice ritual we discovered when we were researching how to become Animagi? I bet you can use it for curse-breaking."
"Master Sirius has always liked his little jokes," comes a voice from underneath the window.
"Say about house-elves what you will," says Sirius, "but they're shit spies." He extinguishes his Silk Cut and slams the window shut.
Then he jumps up from his crouched position on the window-sill, righting himself. "Righty-o," he says. "It's gone midnight. I –"
They witness in idle confusion as Sirius goes white as a sheet. "Oh, shit," Remus hears James say, as they see his legs fold up underneath him.
Peter is closest to him, and in a rare display of good reflexes manages to slow down his crash before he hits his head on the floor.
Then: "Sorry, got woozy," says Sirius. He is already moving to get up.
"Stay down," says Peter. "You're starving, maybe you shouldn't be chain-smoking, too, you twat."
"Don't fucking tell me what to do," says Sirius, but it sounds light-hearted enough. At least he has decided to remain on the floor for a little while.
"Yeah, well, you have a delicate constitution," says Peter. "Here's a pillow, put your feet up. What were you saying before you fainted like a girl?"
The colour is returning to Sirius's face, albeit slowly.
"I was going to reflect on the fact that I've got three arms," says Sirius, "and there's only two of you. No wait, other way 'round. Who'll get to chain themselves to me tonight?" From the floor, he flashes them a winning smile.
"Not me," says Peter. "What? You said you were going to eat me."
Lying down, Sirius shrugs. "The way things are going, mate," he says darkly, "this might be your last chance."
Remus is not sure he can survive another night like the last one. Unfortunately, except for the presence of Peter, it's shaping up to be exactly like last night. Sirius is fidgeting. Peter is talking. James needs to go to the toilet. Then Peter needs to go to the toilet, James is talking, and Sirius is still fidgeting.
"I don't remember you three ever being such shitty dorm mates," groans Remus eventually, and is boxed in the side for his trouble.
Fortunately, werewolves heal fast, he thinks, and then he thinks, but if he weren't a werewolf, he wouldn't need to heal quite so often. It's way too late for these bloody conundrums.
At last, Sirius eventually stills. Looking over at him, however, Remus realises he is wide awake, and thinking, and muttering things under his breath. Tough luck, Remus is going to ignore this. This is not going to be his third crap night in a row, he promises himself.
Hours later, still awake, it's getting harder to keep his resolve. Peter and James have long since succumbed to exhaustion and they're sleeping soundly, James with his tiny little snores that drive everyone bonkers even on a good day.
"Moony," says Sirius very, very softly into the night.
He's been doing this for a while and Remus is determined not to let him have this; mostly because rewarding Sirius for being a pain in the arse is just insane from an operant conditioning perspective.
But as a distant clock strikes two, he's starting to realise his curious brain is not going to let him sleep without getting to the bottom of this.
Sirius is now tugging lightly at their shared handcuff. Remus, sharply reminded why he is usually opposed to all sorts of chains, sighs inwardly. He turns towards Sirius.
Lying flat on his back, Sirius has his head turned towards him. Those clear eyes are wide open and unblinking. Staring him down.
"Moony," Sirius says again.
Oh, for fuck's sake. He's regretting this already. "Yes," says Remus, mentally preparing himself for all sorts of craziness.
He's not prepared for this one. Sirius reaches over, with his right hand that is still bound to Remus's left, and touches his face. It takes Remus a moment to realise that Sirius is tracing a scar with his thumb, the one that streaks all the way from his hairline to his jaw, just narrowly missing his eye.
It's one of the original ones, one that he gave Remus, but Sirius probably doesn't know that and Remus is not about to point it out. Most of it is numb now, anyway.
"What is it like?" asks Sirius. His voice is barely audible over the sleepy silence in the room.
Great, Remus thinks. Two a.m. and Sirius Black in philosophical mood. Plus, that's a bloody open question. "What?" he says eloquently.
"To have us know," says Sirius. "What's that like?" His hand stills, but remains where it is, on the side of Remus's face. It's an odd, floaty feeling. It feels like all the things he doesn't think about, all those daydreams and just, well, dreams, and he certainly isn't thinking about any of that right now. Because it's impossible.
He thinks about the question instead. Remus hardly even remembers being a First Year, because everything that came after it just outshone it. He remembers keeping to himself, spending whole weekends in the library, in the grounds, at the lake, and of course in the hospital wing, always on his own, because he was a child burdened with the impossible task of hiding whole parts of his existence, and in his eleven year old mind, that translated to just hiding altogether.
Oddly, his friends finding out made it so much easier to hide the secret from everyone else.
"Worked out in the end, didn't it," says Remus. Not wanting to add to Sirius's general confusion, he decides to gloss over the initial terror he felt when his friends confronted him after he'd missed the Hallowe'en feast in their second year. He'd expected he was probably going to be bullied or chucked out or both. Twelve year old Gryffindors are not exactly known for their tact or secrecy, after all.
"I feel like I've known all about you, for years," says Sirius. "I've seen all the scars on your body. I've made two of them. Sometimes I feel like I know everything there is to know about you. Don't you find that odd?"
"You don't know half of it," says Remus quietly.
Sirius blinks, then smiles. "Sorry, I forgot. You like to think of yourself as a bloody enigma, Moony."
Thinking has nothing to do with it, thinks Remus. "Where are you going with all this?" he asks carefully.
On the other side of the room, Peter huffs and turns in his sleep. Sirius puts a finger to his lips, waits a minute, then motions Remus closer. When it becomes clear that Peter is still fast asleep, he talks very, very quietly.
"I've kept this all in a box," says Sirius. "A different box than my usual box, I mean, and it was fine for years, except at home. And now all it took was a photo in a magazine and everything came tumbling out and now it's not fine anywhere, and you all know." He flails a bit. "About them. How they are. With me. I - it's just odd."
Sirius is very close now. Remus feels his breath on his face when he talks. He has half a mind of asking Sirius to postpone this until the morning, when they're all a bit more coherent and a bit less chained to each other – but then he remembers the Imperius is stronger during the day, and Sirius may very well not be able to talk about any of this.
"It's not – Padfoot, it's nothing new," says Remus. "We all had a pretty good guess. That it wasn't fine, I mean." In contrast to last night's conversation with his own parents – no laws against it, it's not that, he doesn't talk about any of this – he guesses there's no need to be deliberately obtuse about this now.
"Moony," says Sirius. "You are chained to me. You were never chained to me before. This is a whole new level of not fine."
"I'm not pretending it didn't escalate a bit," concedes Remus. "So, how do you feel about it? About us knowing?"
Thy don't usually talk about feelings, at least not the sort of feelings that are orders of magnitude more complicated than James's hopeless crush on Lily Evans or Sirius's long-standing disdain for Severus Snape, and it takes Sirius a long moment to settle on words to describe this.
"Like a museum piece. Fragile," he says, and winces. "No. Exposed? No, that's not right, either, because Ming vases don't run off, do they? You know, like something in a zoo? You're watching me, Moony. You all are. You think, where's he off to next? The broomstick shed? The fireplace? Into town, to steal a car?"
"I always watch you," says Remus, and realises after he's said it that it sounds like a confession.
Unfortunately, Sirius seems to have picked up on that. "I noticed," he says. "Why?"
It's a fair question, under the circumstances, Remus thinks, and probably not one he should be answering a hundred per cent truthfully. "Prefect," he says.
Sirius gives him a brief smile. It vanishes quickly.
"I don't know if I could bear it if it were anyone but you three," says Sirius. "It's like people knowing makes it real. Like I'm standing there with my stupid box full of mad things and it's all people can see anymore, and then I can never be anyone else."
He draws a deep breath, and Remus thinks he can hear a faint shudder. "Like all I am – all I can hope to be – is what my family made me," says Sirius. "No. Like all I am is what's left after my family is finally done with me. And that is the last thing I want to be."
Remus closes his eyes. "You don't want a trial," he says.
Sirius doesn't say anything, merely shakes his head. After Lyall's warning the previous evening, Remus is a bit ashamed to feel so relieved.
And he understands the conflict, Remus does. If he could, would he choose to see Greyback brought to justice? Then the whole world would know what the man did to him when he was four. Or would he choose to continue his quiet life with all its inconveniences and secrecy and the abstract, habitual fear of Greyback returning one day? His preferred option is not exactly Gryffindor, but then, Godric Gryffindor never encountered a werewolf.
Or Walburga Black, for that matter.
Sirius looks so lost in this moment that Remus would reach out and hug him, if he were the hugging type. He's not. Maybe if he'd had a different sort of life, he'd be more at home with all this stuff. Maybe he could be as careless and comfortable with physical affection as James is.
Well. Maybe not quite like James is. Remus will probably never be the licking type.
"Sirius," he says helplessly.
Sirius's voice is just barely above a whisper. "I want this to go away," he says.
There is silence, and darkness, and in there, there's a word. Want. Remus's breath catches in his throat when he realises.
"Padfoot," he says.
"You said, 'I want'," says Remus. "You haven't said, 'I want' since all this began."
Sirius hesitates, and Remus wonders if he's even noticed. Then Sirius laughs softly. "I'll have to take your word for it," he says. "Thank God you're here. How many people would even bloody notice?"
Remus considers this. "Three," he says. "You said it. We know about your box full of mad things. We're paying attention."
At this, Sirius closes his eyes. "There's one more thing," he says almost inaudibly. "One more mad thing that I want you to know, and it's not dark, or painful. Just mad. Will you let me have this?"
His hand is still cupping the side of Remus's face, and now his fingers are once again lightly tracing his skin. Remus's own hand takes Sirius's and holds it, moving it firmly away from Greyback's scar. He realises he probably shouldn't go along with this, but he can't help being curious at what Sirius – Sirius! – considers mad, warning signs be damned.
Judging by the look on his face, Sirius has obviously not expected this. But then he leans in, like James did, the night before, but not playful.
"I swear, if you lick me –" begins Remus.
He expects Sirius to laugh. He doesn't expect Sirius to laugh and then kiss him on the mouth. It's just lips, but the kiss is warm and close and seems to go on forever, so it can't be entirely accidental.
Remus finds himself very, very surprised.
Not the protesting kind of surprised, granted. It's definitely the baffled kind of surprised. What's probably most surprising is that it's still ongoing. It's not a romantic kiss, after all - if anything, it's a comfort, like the hug he's considered previously. It's just that Sirius is very close now and smells of too many Silk Cuts and this is all very, very new and Remus's heart seems to beat at twice its usual rate. Matches his racing thoughts, he supposes.
In the real world, maybe a handful of seconds pass. Then, on the other side of the mattress, James turns, tugging at Sirius's other hand, and they break apart. Remus knows they can't risk waking James or Peter, that'll turn this moment into an entirely different moment, one neither he nor Sirius have the patience for right now.
Still, since he is already surprised, he can probably spare some surprise for the way he feels about the kiss ending, because it's definitely not relief.
Fortunately, James is still asleep. Though best stop this kissing lark, thinks Remus, and it's the first rational thought in what feels like an eternity. It's not easy, since Sirius is still staring at him with that wide-open, lost expression.
Remus tries hanging on to that sliver of rationality. Someone has to. "Your timing," he points out very quietly, when he thinks he can trust his voice again. "It's shit."
A small smile forms on Sirius's face. "You're right," he says. "When I envisioned this, it was without James and Peter in the room."
"No, not that," says Remus. "Well, that, too, but I meant –"
"You mean the Imperius," says Sirius simply.
"Yes," says Remus dejectedly. He needs to be rational about this. Doesn't mean he has to like it.
"Trust me," says Sirius. "This is the last thing they want. This is my mad idea." He sounds almost proud. "What do you think?"
To be quite honest, Remus thinks that when Lyall Lupin pointed out fighting the Imperius might make Sirius more impulsive, this probably wasn't what he had in mind.
"You don't even know why you want this," says Remus, forcing his voice to be steady .
Another smile. "Forgive me for being forward," says Sirius. "But I really, really do."
The odd thing is, Remus could almost believe it, because Sirius hasn't appeared so much like himself since the last time he saw him, before all this. But Sirius has pointed it out himself. This whole thing is a whole new level of not fine, and it doesn't matter what Remus's stupid teenage brain wants. He is not about to make it worse.
Remus closes his eyes, mentally kicks himself for what he is about to say, then opens them again. "You want to defy them," he says. "I know."
Watching Sirius's smile fade makes him want to scream.
"If that were a concern, I could never do anything," Sirius points out. "It's nothing new. This is."
There is some merit to this, Remus supposes. This, right here, is exactly Sirius's style, and Remus is so tempted to take back his previous words. Instead, he braces himself before going on to turn the knife.
"Later," he says. "Let's figure this out later, okay? After all this is over."
He supposes it sounds reasonable. But he knows his friend. To someone as impulsive as Sirius, "later" means "never", and even if it didn't, "figure this out" means "find all the reasons this is a bad idea". But Remus will be damned if he lets him get any more hurt than he already is.
Remus realises dimly that this is the same line of thinking he himself so utterly objects to when it comes from others. Well, he supposes, now he knows how they feel.
Sirius blinks. "Okay."
Something in his expression closes off. It is terrible to watch, and it's definitely, definitely not what Remus wants. But British restraint and well over a decade of controlling the wolf have left him with the kind of self-control that easily clobbers his teenage impulses – reach out, kiss him back, ask questions later - over the head.
Remus finds he is still holding Sirius's hand. He squeezes it to show – because obviously he can't be expected to use his words at this god-forsaken time of night, not for something as important as this – that he doesn't mind this. That it is okay. That he might even let it happen again.
"Sleep now, Padfoot," he says, and hates himself.
The next day, everything changes.
It's half-time! I took a good look at the vaguely ordered snippets and bits of dialogue and stacks of scribbled notes that currently make up the rest of this thing, and decided that having four more chapters probably makes the most sense. (Looks like my initial estimate of 20.000 words was a tad conservative, too. Sigh.)
Your feedback makes me super happy, so thank you! I hope you like where this is going.
In this chapter: An unexpected visitor, Sirius losing it big time, and finally, a glimpse of hope.
Remus has fully expected the next day to be awkward, but things keep happening and he and Sirius barely have time to properly, uncomfortably avoid each other.
Breakfast, though, is terrible.
There's no Witch Weekly special edition today because the horrible wedding is finally over, and Remus has nothing to distract himself with, except breakfast itself, which he, James, and Peter are guiltily eating. Feeling like a traitor to everything Godric Gryffindor ever stood for, Remus isn't looking at Sirius except out of the corner of his eye, trying to determine exactly how much he fucked up last night.
Of course, Sirius is plenty fucked up already. As it is, he is just sitting there with his cup of black coffee, smoking angrily.
One has to hand to him, though, that he has an equal opportunity approach to his anger. If anything, it's surprising how much care he takes not to single Remus out. The only one in the room who doesn't get his share is Kreacher, because Kreacher is being staunchly ignored. Kreacher is still trying to fight loopholes around the order to not talk unless spoken to, but he doesn't seem to be making much headway.
"For fuck's sake," Sirius says, finally, into the uncomfortable silence. He grabs a piece of toast off James's plate, stuffs it into his mouth, chews defiantly, and swallows. "What you looking at?" he adds.
They just stare.
"What the –" says James finally.
The relief doesn't last long.
That look of defiance vanishes. "Excuse me," says Sirius and bolts to the bathroom. When he returns after several minutes, he's very pale and his eyes are red and there's sweat on his forehead.
"Worth a try, mate," says James in what he probably imagines is a soothing tone.
Sirius shoots him a look. "That's it," he says. "I'm going home. I'll have Kreacher make me a huge breakfast, I'll have a nap, and then, when I'm well-fed and awake, I'll give running away another go."
"Kreacher is always happy to –"
"Oh, shut up, Kreacher."
"Sirius, you're being a tit," says James, who has his head in his hands, but even he seems to give up resistance. The terrible truth is they are simply out of ideas.
They've tried the obvious and a few not so obvious countermeasures. They've tried Finite Incantatem, which did absolutely nothing. They've taken turns trying to stun Sirius in an attempt of what James called rebooting his brain, which gave him a headache. Though that may have been low blood sugar, Remus supposes. They've even talked in low voices about putting a second Imperius on him, just to make him eat a sandwich already, but that one failed by default because none of them saw it in themselves to give it a go.
"Give me one good reason," says Sirius.
James looks up, an expression of utter disbelief on his face. "Gosh, where to even begin?" he says.
"One good reason," says Sirius. "Just one."
James draws a deep breath, ready to rattle down the very long list of reasons why Sirius shouldn't ever set foot in Grimmauld Place again, but then he falters. Settles on just one. "Summer before last," he says.
Sirius grows still. "You fight dirty, James Potter," he says.
The summer of 1974 is some sort of code between the four of them, short-hand for everything terrible that goes on in Grimmauld Place without them having to acknowledge the details. Only James and Sirius even know what really went down the summer before last, the others have remained blissfully ignorant of why, at fourteen, Sirius had staked out at James's for a day and a half, or why he'd then put on a brave face and gone home, or what had happened after.
"You can't go back," says James. "Just because they Imperius'd you, doesn't mean you're not a huge idiot if you do what they want." He drags a puzzled hand through his hair. "Yeah, I know how that sounds."
Remus remembers James words from the first, confused night. He'll go mad in there, or die. What does James know? What is he scared of?
But of course Remus knows, because he's scared of the same thing: That now that this particular Rubicon has been crossed, they won't just stop at the one Unforgiveable. If that thought had turned up just four days earlier, he'd have thought it absurd. Dramatic.
But then, what is the Cruciatus? Just pain beyond imagination. Could Remus have imagined any of this?
Sirius's anger gains a hint of bitterness. "I don't see a choice here, mate," he says.
"Sirius," says James, and he is now wearing that other face, the one he's been trying on for size a few times during the last year. The adult face.
"If you go home now," he says, "I guarantee you there won't be breakfast. I guarantee you they'll lock you in your room to think about what you've done. Might as well just starve here, at least you'll be laughing."
"I'm not laughing," Sirius points out. "And I am locked up. And I am," he pauses, distraught. "Thinking. About what I could possibly have done that's so -"
"Tell you what," says James, scrambling madly for something, anything, to derail Sirius's train of thought. "We'll go down to the lake for a swim. Think we all deserve a bit of fun while we're waiting for you to die."
"Do you want him to drown?" says Peter, and Sirius gives him a look that would normally make him scuttle in fear.
As it is, Peter seems to have learned to stand up to Sirius in the past few days. "I'm just saying he's delicate," he adds. "Remus, help me here."
"Piss off, Peter," says Sirius. He takes a deep breath, squashing all hints of despair. "Lake sounds good, James. Let's."
Then James's mother enters the kitchen.
"Boys," she says. "A… situation has arisen in the living room."
Sirius looks up, eyes locking onto hers. "Am I correct in assuming it arose through the fireplace?" he says.
"Which one?" he says. He doesn't even look scared anymore. Just so, so tired.
"The lad," says Mrs Potter, and James breathes a not-so-obvious sigh of relief. Mrs Potter notices, of course. "Believe me if I say I'd have hexed anyone else," she adds drily.
"Euphemia," says Sirius with the most charming smile he can muster at the moment. "You are wasted on James."
Mrs Potter smiles wanly. "Look, Sirius," she says. "I can just send him home if you like. You don't have to –"
"No, I'll go talk to him," says Sirius, getting up. "Might be illuminating."
"Not alone, you won't," says James.
"Wasn't going to," says Sirius. "Come along, cronies, let's go intimidate a Slytherin – not you, Kreacher."
"Where Master goes, Kreacher goes," says Kreacher stubbornly, and creeps after them.
"Homesick, aren't you," says Sirius. "Well, I guess that's one of us. After you."
In the living room, he is lounging against the mantelpiece: Regulus Black. A smidge taller than Sirius, a smidge slimmer, but the same dark hair, the same clear grey eyes, the same sharp aristocratic features. He's idly turning an object between his fingers. It looks like one of the two dozen or so hideous porcelain figurines that decorate the mantelpiece.
Upon their arrival, he looks up, and smiles thinly. "Brother," he says.
There is tension. Quite a lot of it, and for a number of different reasons. It's James who decides to cut through it first.
"Put that back," he snaps. "That's my mum's."
Regulus shrugs, but places the porcelain figurine carefully among the others on the mantelpiece.
Sirius is next. "Did they send you to take me home?" he says. "They're really scraping the bottom of the barrel now."
"Priorities," says Regulus. "First of all, the rest of the Black household would like their house-elf back now."
"You are unbelievable," says Peter, voicing what they are all thinking.
"Master Regulus," croaks Kreacher. "Kreacher is sorry, Kreacher has failed, Master Sirius will not come with him –"
"It's okay, Kreacher," says Regulus. "Go home."
It clearly causes Kreacher a lot more pain to resist Regulus than Sirius. Still, he tries. "Mistress said to not return without him," he says. "Kreacher does as he is told."
"Come here, Kreacher," says Regulus, and as the house-elf approaches, Regulus crouches down in front of him. "I have talked to mother," he says. "She says it's okay and to come home." He places a hand on the elf's shoulder. "Go home now."
"Master Regulus is too kind," croaks the elf. If he has trouble resisting one direct command, he's hilariously unable to resist two in a row. With a faint crack, Kreacher vanishes from the living room, and Regulus gets back on his feet.
Remus half expects him to leave, but no. Regulus turns to his brother. "Do they have to be in the room for this?" he asks with a wave of his hand that encompasses James, Remus, and Peter.
"Listen, you little shit –", begins James.
"Yes," says Sirius simply. "Though guys? No offence, but I'll do the talking. Take a seat, brother."
Sirius points towards one of the armchairs in front of the fireplaces, while he himself settles down in the other. James, Remus, and Peter are left with the couch, feeling like spectators in a bizarre panel discussion .
"You are very comfortable in another family's home," observes Regulus. He sizes up the offered armchair, finds nothing to offend his delicate Pureblood sensibilities, and sits down as if it were a throne.
"Why are you here, Regulus?" says Sirius. He lounges in the other armchair, putting up his feet on the low couch table.
"I've come to deliver a message," says Regulus. "Return, and everything will be forgiven." Remus is not sure if it's the Black upbringing that lets the boy keep a straight face, or just his charming personality, but either way, he finds it jarring.
Sirius laughs. "Oh, they'd love that, wouldn't they?"
Regulus shrugs. "I'm just the messenger."
"Tell them this," says Sirius. "One, I will not return. Two, I will not forgive. Three, they can kiss my -"
"That's not what I will tell them and you know it."
Sirius glares at him for a good long while, but Regulus's face gives nothing away.
"You know they put me under the Imperius curse," Sirius says finally.
"Have they?" says Regulus. "Funny, you haven't been doing an awful lot of obeying." He raises his hands in defence. "Yes, yes, I know."
"Of course you do," says Sirius. "Why else would you wake me in the middle of the night and tell me to take the motorbike and leave?"
"You can't blame a chap for fancying some peace and quiet," says Regulus off-handedly.
On the couch, next to Remus, James seems to have a lightbulb moment. "You wrote that note," he says suddenly.
Regulus's face turns towards him. "What note?" he inquires mildly.
James pulls out the battered piece of parchment he has been carrying around for the last two days, the one that says, in loopy, elegant script, Looks like I've pushed a few too many buttons this summer and got myself Imperius'ed for the wedding.
"Should have noticed earlier," James says. "Sirius doesn't address me as Potter. I just thought I recognised Sirius's poncy handwriting, but I bet the two of you had calligraphy lessons together, did you?"
"Every Black in the last six centuries has had calligraphy lessons," says Regulus levelly. "Show me?"
Regulus holds out his hand. Upon Sirius's nod, James reluctantly balls the note up and throws it to him.
The younger Black flings it into the air and incinerates it with a flick of his wand.
James jumps up. "You bastard," he snarls. "That was evidence!" It takes both Remus and Peter to hold him back.
"Behave, James," says Sirius.
"Why?" says James. "You saw what he did."
Sirius smiles grimly. "Evidence. Who cares?" he says. "I believe I am owed some answers, and this, right here, might be my last chance. Try not to fuck it up, Jamesie."
Regulus leans back in his armchair, offensively comfortable. "You really mean this, don't you," he says. He considers it for a moment. "Well then," he says. "Fire away."
"You know who did it?" says Sirius.
"No," says Regulus, "but I am willing to make a very confident guess. But you already know who."
"Of course I do, it's obvious," says Sirius. "The question is, is it obvious to anyone but me?"
"You know?" says James incredulously. "Who is it? Is it Bellatrix?"
"Not her style," says Sirius off-handedly. "My dear cousin Bellatrix enjoys chaos too much. She always says I'm boring when I behave."
"Why in the world would you think it was Narcissa?" says Regulus.
James shrugs. "Aren't brides supposed to be a bit mental about their weddings?"
"Clever, James," says Sirius. "Very clever. But the sole reason Narcissa married Malfoy was so she would never have to get her hands dirty again."
"Then it can really only be –"
"Enough," says Sirius. "It doesn't matter who cast the curse."
"Enough," says Sirius, and turns back towards his brother. "You're the dark magic expert. Do you know how it works? How do we turn it off?"
"It's still on?" says Regulus, raising an eyebrow. Just one. The git. "I'd have expected things to go a lot smoother if it were."
James looks intently from Sirius to his brother and back, but apparently Sirius isn't going to mention it.
James, however, is. "They're starving him," he says.
"James!" says Sirius sharply.
They what?" Finally, the first dent in Regulus Black's composure.
"He hasn't eaten a thing since Sunday," says James in an accusing tone, "and that, by the way, was my last Jammie Dodger – that's a Muggle biscuit -"
"I didn't know," says Regulus. "I'm –"
But apparently the phrase I'm sorry is not going to pass his lips. "I don't know how to turn it off," he adds. "I've heard they sometimes hold for months. I – I'm going to talk to Mother. She'll set this right, that can't be how it was supposed to go."
"You mean, they don't really mean to kill me over a Muggle Studies O.W.L.?" says Sirius. "I thought it was a bit extreme, even by their standards. What do you think?"
"How do you mean?"
"How come you helped me?" says Sirius. "How come, after all these years, you're finally horrified? What's new about this?"
"There is absolutely nothing new about this," says Regulus, and he seems just a smidge annoyed now. "It is the same damn game you played over the last four summers. You provoke, they react."
"Predictably," says Regulus. "You're clever, Sirius, how did you never figured out how to keep your head down?"
At this, James clearly wants to add his opinion to the debate, but Sirius silences him with an impatient gesture. "Then why help me at all?" he says. "I was such a model heir at the wedding. I bet you loved that."
"I looked at you and was appalled," says Regulus. "Because loyalty without conviction is just a cheap trick, not worthy of our name. It was the same damn game, yes, but everyone was losing, and I was tired of it."
"So you took it upon yourself to force the endgame," says Sirius. "You'll make a wonderful heir, Reggie."
There is a pause. "I never wanted to," says Regulus, and he certainly looks sincere. "Believe me when I say there is something very relaxing about being the spare."
Sirius laughs, and there's years of pain in that laugh. "I can only imagine," he says.
"But I'm starting to think it is the only way," says Regulus coolly.
"It is," confirms Sirius. "I'm not returning."
Regulus nods. "No," he says. "I didn't think you would."
He moves to get up, but reconsiders, his eyes boring into Sirius's. "Allow me one question," he says. "Just one. How was it for you? The wedding, I mean."
"What do you mean?" says Sirius irritably.
"You played your role," says Regulus. "You had conversations, not arguments. You were dancing, not fighting. You were polite, friendly. Accepted. How did it make you feel?"
Sirius considers this from all sides, and his expression turns a peculiar shade of nauseated. "I haven't been so happy in the company of my family since before Hogwarts," he says quietly.
"Thought so," says Regulus. "By the way," and he turns towards James, Remus, and Peter on the couch, "I hope you three are proud of yourselves."
"It's not because of them and you know it," snaps Sirius.
"You're right," says Regulus. "It's because of you. It never needed to escalate as it did. You could have had this all along. Acceptance. Happiness. If only you'd played the game."
"I am not settling for conditional love," says Sirius.
"Nicely phrased," says Regulus. "But you think it means you don't have to make an effort, am I right?"
He rises regally from his armchair.
"Been nice catching up," he says. "I'll be off, then. Or was there anything else you wanted?"
"What would I want from you?" says Sirius.
"You realise our parents think you're a genius?" says Regulus sarcastically. "I don't know, something from the house? You left in a bit of a hurry."
Sirius leans back. Thinking. "You know what," he says finally.
Regulus laughs. "Honestly?" he says. "You're under the Imperius. Think it through. The absolute last thing you need right now is your wand."
Sirius actually pales under the unspoken warning. Regulus doesn't have to say it out loud: As soon as he returns to Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place without his brother, there will be no knowing what they will try to make Sirius do.
But of course, Sirius laughs in the face of fear. "Scared?" he says. "I know Mother locked it in her nightstand under thirteen layers of protection, but surely a Dark Magic enthusiast such as yourself –"
And there it is, just a hint of an eye-roll. "I'm offering to do you a favour, brother," says Regulus. "Not thirteen."
For a moment, Sirius just closes his eyes, clearly trying to exert some control over his temper. "I don't think you should be doing me any more favours," he says finally.
"All right, then," Regulus says lightly.
"In fact," says Sirius, "you better not show your face around here again. If you know what's good for you."
Regulus looks at him for a long moment, an expression of grim acceptance on his face. "I suppose you're right," he says. "Now, which one of your friends is the clever one?"
Remus looks from James to Peter and back, who both seem a bit overwhelmed with the entirety of the situation. "I guess that would be me," he says tentatively.
"Excellent," says Regulus. "I hope you paid close attention, clever one, because I'm not sure my dear brother did."
"What the –" begins Sirius, but there's no clarification coming. Sirius looks from Remus to Regulus and back. The former is formidably confused. The latter is smirking.
And then Regulus gives Remus the tiniest of nods, like they share some sort of secret knowledge. Oh god, thinks Remus, because they really, really don't.
Sirius, in the spirit of solving one conundrum at a time, turns back to his brother. "They'll punish you for this," he says.
"For returning without you when an Imperius couldn't bring you back?" says Regulus. "Don't be ridiculous."
"For helping me, moron," says Sirius. "They'll punish you for helping me."
Regulus shrugs in his maddening way. "Yes," he says. "But I've had a clean record for fifteen years and they don't have a spare anymore. I'll manage."
Sirius laughs. "You'll thrive, you mean," he says.
There's a hint, just a hint, of emotion on Regulus's face before he conceals it again. "Goodbye, brother," he says.
With small, precise movements of his wand, he starts conjuring the complex key that will allow him access to the fireplace at Grimmauld Place. "I guess I'll see you in school, then," he adds.
Sirius smiles faintly. "Not if I see you first."
The key is floating in Regulus's upturned hand as he reaches in his pocket with the other to extract a silvery tin of Floo powder.
"Regulus," says Remus.
The kid turns. Behind him, the flames are already burning green.
"What is it, clever one?" he asks calmly, and Remus has the distinct impression that Regulus wouldn't even speak to the likes of him normally, that today is a massive exception. Every fibre in his body is on edge because of that.
"If all this blows up," says Remus. "If there is an investigation. If there is a trial –"
"There won't be," says Regulus.
"Whose side will you be on?"
"I will stand with my family," says Regulus. "Always."
"He's your family," Remus points out.
"Not by his choice," says Regulus, and steps backwards into the flames. "Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place," he says clearly, and his figure collapses into the flames.
There is silence for a moment. Then Sirius jumps up.
"Little bastard!" he shouts, and grabs for the nearest object to throw. It so happens to be one of the little porcelain figurines on top of the mantelpiece. When it hits the wall, it shatters into a million pieces.
"Sirius, stop smashing the ornaments!" says James. "My mum's very fond of them."
"They're appalling, though," observes Peter from the sidelines.
"That is so off-topic!" says James, but altogether not with a lot of conviction.
"Son of a bitch!" That is one is Sirius.
"And that's just redundant," says James.
"God, I hope not," says James, as he wrestles a porcelain rabbit out of Sirius's hands.
"Will you stop – taking – me – so literally!" roars Sirius. "Did you not hear what he said? That's it, I'm going back. Give me your wand, Moony."
It's the first time he's properly addressing Remus today, and of course he's had to wait until he's absolutely furious to do it. Typical.
"Why mine?" inquires Remus.
"Because James's wand hates me," says Sirius, "and Peter's is made out of driftwood and a single pube from a troll."
"For the last time," growls Peter. "It's spruce with a core of-"
"Your wand, Moony," demands Sirius.
Peter and James are trying to keep Sirius away from Mrs Potter's collection of porcelain nightmares, while Remus lets himself get side-tracked by a slightly more solvable problem, because still he needs to think, think, think about what Regulus meant.
With his wand, he repairs the incredibly tasteless porcelain ballerina, and then an equally tasteless pink porcelain turtle. Even as he does it, Sirius manages to grab another figurine by the tips of his fingers, and he's so angry, Remus could swear he sees sparks fly. This one ends up hitting the side of the fireplace, and rolls in front of Remus's feet, surprisingly whole.
Remus picks it up in his hands.
"You're not going anywhere," shouts James. "Get it into that thick head of yours!"
Sirius ignores him even as he's straining against his friends' hold. "Moony. Wand. Give me."
Remus regards the unbroken figurine in his hands. It's butt-ugly, he diagnoses, even compared to the rest of the monstrosities that Mrs Potter is so fond of, a black-clad clown with a face like a painted snake.
But that's not it. He is fairly sure this is the one Regulus'd had been turning in his hands when they'd entered the room.
"Tough luck today, moron," says James. "Moony's not going to give you his wand, is he? Because he's the clever one. Moony, by the way, I'm never going to let you live that one down."
Probably time to live up to that title, Remus thinks. What did Regulus say? I hope you paid close attention. To be honest, Remus has paid a perfectly average amount of attention to all of this. He turns the figurine this way and that – and then he sees it. Words. On the bottom.
With James and Sirius still fighting for control and the occasional porcelain ornament ricocheting off the furniture, there's simply no time to think about any of this, so Remus furtively slips the figurine into his pocket.
"You don't know what it's like, James," shouts Sirius. "Have you – have any of you – ever reflected on how ridiculous this is? You're all my family ever disdained. The blood traitor, the half-blood, the werewolf. Did you not listen to my brother? What if they make me attack you? They'll do it without a second thought. What then?"
"Well, it'll be a fairly short attack, because you'll find that we all have wands and you don't." says James.
Sirius gives him a withering look. "You've slept while chained to me. I am shite at resisting this and you know it. I could strangle you in your sleep and it'll be – it'll be just a laugh to them. Are you actually, certifiably insane, James Potter?"
"I'm your friend," says James. "So maybe. Yes."
Sirius abruptly stops fighting, and draws a deep, shuddering breath. From his position on the floor, Remus feels his friend might be quite close to actual tears.
"Let me go home, James," says Sirius. "Please. It's over. They won."
"Not even your brother thinks they won," says James.
"That's because he doesn't have nearly as much experience as I have in losing to them," says Sirius quietly. "Please, James. If you're my friend, then let me cut my losses now. Before anyone gets hurt."
"Too late for that," says James, with surprising gentleness in his voice. "You are hurt. And I can't stand it."
Remus knows they are at a crossroads here, and he knows he'll need to do some serious quick thinking if he wants to avert this new impending madness that is Sirius going home.
All this time, it's been Sirius against them, against this unified terrible entity that is the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, so singular that it doesn't even matter who cast the Imperius. It is such an unfair fight, but Remus knows all about unfair fights.
And he knows all about losing.
But at least he's not alone, he thinks, and then, finally, he remembers: Neither is Sirius.
Remus breathes a sigh of relief.
James never lets go of Sirius's arm, and neither does Peter, but Sirius isn't struggling to run, or fight. Instead he's just standing there, staring James down.
"You still don't get it, do you?" he says. "You just don't know – none of you does, okay? It's like, it's like –"
"Like there's someone else in your head with you?" says Remus from the floor, where he's still kneeling among the smashed figurines.
"Yes, exactly, Moony –"
"Someone you've hated forever, who has no right to be there, and who will just not leave?"
Sirius blinks, and Remus knows he understands. "Yes," Sirius says quietly.
Remus is picking up the broken pieces of another porcelain figure, considering whether this one is salvageable. He doesn't even know what it was before it shattered. Some sort of creepy monkey, he supposes. It's a good thing Mrs Potter is so nice, he thinks, because her taste is truly atrocious.
"Someone who does such a good job wearing your face," Remus continues, "that you don't know what thoughts are yours, that you don't know what you want, or why you want it?"
Sirius lets himself be led back to his armchair by Peter and James, who are listening with rapt, open-mouthed attention. Remus has never been particularly open about the mind-fuck that being a werewolf can be. This must be captivating. But it's not them he needs to captivate.
"But none of that is new, Sirius, is it?" he says.
Sirius sits abruptly, head in his hands. "No," he says. "It's just, it's just –
"More of the same," says Remus.
"So much more," says Sirius.
"They raised the stakes this time," says Remus. "They're threatening your friends."
"Then how can you give in now?" asks Remus. "You must not go home. Or they'll know they'll always get their way, and it will just get worse. Every year, we didn't think it could get worse, and every year, it did."
"Let there not be a next year, Sirius," says Remus. "Because they won't stop this in November. It's a lie we told ourselves. Seventeen is just a legal limit, and they are beyond the law now."
It is quite a different lecture, he thinks, to the one they'd given Sirius on board the Hogwarts Express, at the beginning of the summer. Keep your head down. Hold your tongue. Compromise. It's quite different, too, from Lyall Lupin's warning that no good can come out of defying the Blacks. They really don't have a choice anymore.
There's a pause. Then Peter says, "That's all very well, Moony, but Regulus did say this could go on for months. The boy has to eat. What do we do?"
They're all looking at him now, Sirius and James and Peter. Great, he thinks. Give one little motivational speech and soon you'll be expected to solve actual problems.
"All this time, I said there's got to be someone we can ask. Someone who knows what it's like. Someone who can keep a secret," says Remus. "Someone who – I would assume – knows enough Dark Magic to help us." He sighs. "Someone who is an actual, grown-up adult and everything."
"And who would that be?" says Sirius. "Because I swear, if you say Dumbledore, I'll scream. I begged him for help in my first year, and I will not beg again."
"I might, though," says James.
"I'm not saying Dumbledore," says Remus.
"Those bloody photographs," says Remus. "They're all anyone's ever going to remember of the Black family in 1976, aren't they? Their purpose is not to entertain bored housewives. Their purpose is to record history. You're not the only one fighting your family, but we never thought of her, because she wasn't in the wedding."
"Who?" says James.
Sirius blinks. "You can't mean –"
"That's how they do your head in, isn't it?" says Remus. "They control the records. They've shunned her from the family, they blasted her name off the tapestry, they've all but erased her from your memory."
"I haven't thought of her in years," says Sirius.
"Who?" says Peter.
"Andromeda," says Sirius. "How could I forget?"
"Who?" says Peter.
"She was the middle child between Bellatrix and Narcissa," says Sirius. "She ran and never turned back. If anyone can help, it's her."
To be continued.
Sorry for the slightly longer-than-usual wait, I was in America! Which turned out to be neither the place nor the time to delve into the minds of teenage British school boys in the countryside. Now that I am safely back in Ye Olde England, I expect things to progress at their usual pace.
Also, did I say glimpse of hope? Yeah, sorry about that.
Many thanks for your comments, kudos etc., I really appreciate the feedback! :)
Remus has locked himself in the upstairs toilet.
He is not usually in the habit of hiding in toilets, except that a house populated by James, Sirius, and Peter is usually just that: Extremely populated. It has its advantages if crazy plans, grand schemes, or just a huge amount of noise are what you're after. It's admittedly shit for quietly figuring things out.
Remus is using his rare moment of solitude to take out and examine the ugly porcelain clown Regulus has left for them to find. Remus is still extremely bewildered about that one. In his experience, teenage boys don't usually attempt to communicate through hideous porcelain collectibles.
A riddle, then. He sighs. Given that Gryffindors' intellectual abilities are not exactly held in high regard amongst Slytherins, the riddle can't be too complicated. Then again…
This is why no-one likes Slytherins, Remus thinks, turning the clown in his hands. They think they're so bloody cunning and sly when they're just being obscure.
One curious thing: The clown had blended in perfectly with Mrs Potters collection of ugly knick-knacks on the mantelpiece – but Regulus had never been here before. Unless you counted the thirty seconds he'd spent on his own in the Potters' living room while Mrs Potter had gone to get Sirius, James, Remus, and Peter…
Either the Blacks' taste in home décor equals Mrs Potter's, Remus concludes, or Regulus had used those thirty seconds very well indeed.
Remus experimentally throws the clown against the wall, where it bounces and lands safely back in his hand. So it's almost certainly not a porcelain clown. A tap of his wand confirms this. It's Transfigured.
But what was it before? He's certainly not going to Untransfigure this thing in the Potters' bathroom before he's had a chance to think this through, yet… this object, despite its profound ugliness, doesn't have the grim, powerful aura of Dark Magic. It feels, he has to admit, pleasant.
Almost like an old friend…
Someone knocks on the door.
"Oy, Moony," comes James's impatient voice, "Stop wanking, we're going to try and call Andromeda on the telly."
"Telephone," says Remus, and turns the clown in his hands again. He's taking a huge risk, he knows, just keeping this on his person. It's mad, but he trusts that thing, it's –
"That's what I said –"
almost on the tip of his tongue –
"Telly's short for television," says Remus, and wishes, not for the first time, that his friends wouldn't distract him every minute of his life. "Phone's short for telephone," he adds. "Ask Sirius to explain it to you, he has an O.W.L. in that shit."
"One of them Muggle contraptions, in any case," says James in the tone of someone who cannot appreciate technicalities at this point. "We tried Flooing, but her fireplace isn't listed. Now if you could stop playing with your wand, mate, we're in a hurry."
Remus regards the reptile-faced clown in his hands. All right, so he may be taking a huge risk, but he's definitely not going to be more of a bloody Gryffindor about it than he absolutely needs to.
Serenaded by James's thumping of the door, Remus casts three charms on the thing: The first is a general-purpose Finite Incantatem, which, among other things, should keep the figurine from turning into a Portkey. The second is the Muffliato, just in case its purpose is to eavesdrop on them, and the third is a modified Confundus, which convinces the thing it is permanently stuck in the city of Reykjavik. That should keep their movements from being tracked.
Then James tells him to stand back because he's blasting the door down.
"Coming, you pillock," he shouts, and slips the clown back into his pocket.
It takes the best part of the day to contact Andromeda, and that's only because James finally remembers the name of that one Hufflepuff who was head girl in their first year, who in turn remembers the name of the Muggle-born Andromeda married right after school.
Then they're all crammed together in what must be the only telephone cell this side of Glastonbury, spending most of their Muggle coins calling all the Tonkses in Greater London, eighty per cent of whom think they're pranking them because, apparently, Andromeda is an outrageous name amongst Muggles.
When they finally get through to Andromeda, she listens quietly as Peter talks into the mouthpiece. Out of the four of them, he is the most experienced with telephones.
Then she talks for a moment while Peter listens.
"What did she say?" says Sirius. "Hello Andromeda!"
"Sirius, she can't see you waving," says Remus, who is starting to think that Muggle Studies is, in fact, a soft option. He has Sirius's elbow in his ribs and James's mad hair in his face.
"She says 'always nice to hear from family'," says Peter. Then he listens some more.
"What now?" says Sirius.
"She says, 'you realise you can just put an amplifying charm on the earpiece'," says Peter. "We're underage, Andromeda! Now she says, 'Oh'."
"Isn't that illegal?" Remus mouths to Sirius, who shrugs.
"Said she was my favourite cousin, didn't I?" he replies.
"Ask her if we can meet somewhere to discuss this," shouts James, who is apparently getting impatient by the conversation's snail pace.
"Andromeda, can we meet somewhere to – oh good, you heard that."
They can't hear the reply, but it goes on for a while. Then Peter says, "Yes, he identified that problem, too. I'm sure he'll understand."
"What did she say?" says Sirius.
"She says you can't come," says Peter shortly. "She's not letting you near her daughter while you're under the Imperius curse."
"See, I told you I'm not to be trusted," says Sirius. "Tell her that. Tell her she's cleverer than all of you morons combined."
"Sirius says 'fair enough'," says Peter into the telephone. There's another long pause.
"Just directions," says Peter. "Oh, she says to keep your spirits up, Sirius, it's just their last mad stand."
"Good," says Sirius. "I was getting worried."
"Thank you, Andromeda," says Peter into the mouthpiece, and he's audibly relieved. "We're sending a delegation over now."
"Bye, Andromeda," shouts Sirius.
"She says, 'later'," says Peter. "Yeah, later!" He hangs up.
Peter volunteers to stay behind and look after Sirius. James and Remus leave them in the garden, where Sirius is smoking the last of his Silk Cuts and Peter is unpacking his Gobstones set.
James and Remus Floo into the Leaky Cauldron. Andromeda has agreed to meet in the middle of Muggle London, where neither of them can use magic without activating the Trace. They follow Andromeda's directions until they find a cosy Muggle café near Whitehall Gardens.
She's waiting for them at one of the outside tables underneath a sunshade, stirring her coffee, flipping through the pages of that god-forsaken Witch Weekly. On the table in front of her is her wand, bold as you like. There's a pushchair behind her with a sleeping toddler in it.
From afar, Andromeda looks a lot like her sister Bellatrix, so much that James is actually tugging Remus's sleeves, suggesting they might just want to get the hell out of here. Then she turns towards them, and they remember they are on a mission.
"You, boy," she says to Remus, as they're approaching. "If Sirius Black could have any pet, what would he get?"
"A dog," says Remus, and he can't help but grin. "A big one. Though he's known to be utterly distracted by goldfish."
"And what's his favourite holiday?" she asks James.
"Bonfire Night," says James. "Largely because it involves setting things on fire." He notes the sceptical look on Andromeda's face. "Though only since Third Year, when he learned about it in Muggle Studies. Used to be Hallowe'en."
"Good," says Andromeda. "Had to be sure."
"You think his family couldn't answer these questions?" says Remus.
"When have they ever paid attention to what he likes?" Andromeda says offhandedly. "This," she points towards the pushchair, "is my daughter Nymphadora. Shame of my ancestors' flesh, cancer of the family tree, and my greatest pride."
Nymphadora? Remus and James look at each other and agree silently not to remark on the name.
Like most children her age, Nymphadora is rather charming, albeit in a slightly sticky way, and Remus scrambles for the comment that is clearly expected. Much like the name, he feels it is inappropriate to remark on her appearance. After five years of predominantly beholding Hogwarts school uniforms, his eyes are not ready for this.
It turns out that James has no such qualms. "Isn't her hair a bit… green for a toddler?" he says.
"Have you tried reasoning with a three-year-old?" says Andromeda. "She thought it matched her orange sandals. Who was I to argue?"
It doesn't match the orange sandals, Remus thinks weakly. It doesn't match the blue dress with glowing pink fireflies on it. It doesn't match the lilac polka-dotted scarf. He might concede it matches the yellow patterned socks, but that is possibly by accident. The result is something between an eyesore and a rare form of retinal cancer. Remus feels like he'll have this image burned into the back of his head for quite some time to come.
"Dressed herself then?" James says in diplomatic tones. Clearly, he is having similar thoughts. "I thought perhaps she did."
Remus clears his throat. James always resorts to sarcasm when he's confused, and he feels some flattery may be a better way to get into Andromeda's good graces. Unfortunately, he knows very little about children, and decides to take a wild stab in the dark.
"Amazing, isn't it, that she can keep the hair while she's sleeping," he says. "Is she very magical, then?"
"A Metamorphmagus, actually," Andromeda states proudly.
Remus blinks. "I thought they were fictional."
Andromeda laughs. "So did we," she said. "Imagine our surprise. We thought they'd mixed up the babies over night at the hospital." She hands them a cardboard menu, and Remus feels like they passed a test. Barely.
"Sit down, boys," says Andromeda. "Have a coffee. My treat."
She listens in silence as they tell her the whole story, interrupted only by the waiter taking their order and bringing out the coffees.
"You are sure it's the Imperius?" she says softly.
"He hasn't eaten for three days now," says Remus. "He's tried to run for it about eight times altogether, and he keeps begging us to let him go. Why else would he run away and then try to run back?"
"Jesus, that's appalling, even for them," says Andromeda, taking a thoughtful sip of her coffee.
"Please," says James. "We need to know about the Imperius. How does it work? How do we break it?"
"Well, I'm hardly an expert," says Andromeda. Upon seeing the looks on their faces, she says, grimly, "But I've seen it in action. It's a difficult curse to break. Finite Incantatem doesn't work on it -"
"Yeah, we tried that –"
"It doesn't require ongoing eye contact, it doesn't even require physical proximity to the victim once the connection is established," continues Andromeda. "A strong Imperius can last for years, and with well-phrased orders, it doesn't require a lot of ongoing effort by the caster. It can even get worse over time, because the victim becomes disconnected from their own will."
"Shit," says Remus, before catching himself.
"It's okay, she's sleeping," says Andromeda with a side-glance at Nymphadora. "But do try to hold back, she soaks up bad words like you wouldn't believe!"
"Do you know of any ways to break it?" says James.
"It's not impossible," says Andromeda. "People have thrown it off. It's ultimately down to the strength of one's will."
"Yeah, well, Sirius doesn't seem to have any luck with that," says Remus. "And he's the most strong-willed person I know. Does that mean that whoever cast it –" he flails for words. It seems impossible.
"You mean that their will is stronger than his?" says Andromeda. "Not necessarily. But if I am right in assuming who did this, then they know him intimately. In and out. His fears. His strengths. His weaknesses."
"But not what pet he would get, or his favourite holiday?"
"Exactly," says Andromeda. "And Sirius's greatest weakness, of course, is his impulsivity. He acts on every whim. He's not used to doubting his impulses, or where they come from. It's like a muscle he has never developed. He's a perfect target for the Imperius."
"And can he learn how to break it?"
"In time," says Andromeda. "But I fear that is time he does not have, because they'll force him back before that. You'll have noticed that all the orders he's been given are designed to hurt only himself. He hasn't been made to attack any of you, correct?"
"Correct," says James.
"Because that would require the Imperius to work against his strengths," says Andromeda. "His loyalty. His protectiveness. It makes me think that whoever cast the Imperius is probably not very skilled or experienced at the spell itself. But they're excellent at head games."
"You know who it is, then?" says Remus.
"I have my suspicions," she says. She raised her hands. "It doesn't matter," she says. "If what you say is true, then it truly doesn't matter. What matters is that he isn't safe there, and that he can't go back."
"All right," says Remus. "Is there any other way –"
"Another possibility is that the person who cast it could be persuaded to end it," says Andromeda.
"And how likely do you think that is?" says James.
"Head games again," says Andromeda. "It would take a skilled diplomat, someone with experience in Pureblood family dynamics –"
She sees their hopeful faces. "Not me," she says. "I'm not setting foot in that house ever again."
"Andromeda," says Remus. "We don't exactly have a huge amount of time."
"They're not out to kill him," she says. "They'll stop trying to starve him soon, I'm sure of it."
"That's what Regulus said, too," says James. "But neither he nor you have to watch this. If you saw how bloody miserable he is -" He is starting to get angry. "I can't watch this for another day, much less a week. I swear I'll send him back myself!"
"That's exactly what they want," says Andromeda. "I grew up in that family. Trust me, I know. It's a power play, and they're bluffing."
James shakes his head. "It's not bluffing when they're holding all the cards."
"You know," says Remus, "I've just about had enough of this."
"Enough of what?" says Andromeda.
"You," he says. "My parents. His parents." He waves at James. "Sorry, mate," he adds. "They all say they'll do anything to help, but all they seem to find is six new ways in which helping is impossible." He takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Andromeda," he adds. "I didn't mean to snap at you."
"I understand," says Andromeda darkly. "It was the same for me. Adults are never too keen to get in the line of fire, are they? So much to lose." She takes an absent-minded look at her sleeping daughter. "I know of one other way to neutralise the Imperius," she adds.
"And is that impossible, too?" says Remus.
"It falls firmly into the category of 'bad idea'," says Andromeda. "But no, not impossible. The mind control is, of course, mediated by the caster's wand. If you remove the wand from the caster's possession, the link is broken at the source, and cannot be re-established without direct contact to the victim. The effects will wear off in time."
James blinks. "So you are suggesting we walk into Grimmauld Place and steal Mrs Black's wand?"
He sees the expression on both their faces. "Oh, come on," he adds scornfully. "We always knew it was his mum, didn't we?"
"No, I am suggesting you keep as far away from Grimmauld Place as you can, if you know what's good for you," says Andromeda. "And if you don't – well, I suppose I can help with the keyspells."
Remus thinks harder.
"I have a feeling we won't have to go there at all," he says slowly.
James is surprised. "How do you mean?"
"It's a bit of a complex one, so try to listen carefully, mate," says Remus.
"Oh God," says James. "It's Mudbury's Third Law of Interacting Runes all over again."
"Two things here are really odd, aren't they?" says Remus. "One, thirteen protective spells."
"Sorry, I'm already lost," says James.
"Sirius mentioned it this morning," says Remus patiently. "There were thirteen protective spells on the nightstand where Mrs Black hid his wand, remember?"
"They've taken it away before," says James. "That's not odd, that's typical. That's basically the opposite of odd."
"Though thirteen protective spells does sound a bit excessive for keeping out a kid without a wand," says Andromeda. "What's this about, Remus?"
"Ah, that's the second odd thing," says Remus. "Here." He gets the ugly porcelain clown out of his pocket.
"What in the name of sanity is that?" says Andromeda.
James squints. "Isn't that one of my mum's, ah, collectibles?" he says.
"It's Transfigured," says Remus. "Made to look like one of your mum's… objects." He turns it over, shows them the inscription on the base. Toujours Pur. Andromeda recoils visibly.
"So that's what that little scene was about," says James. "I hate to say it, but that's a super obvious trap you fell for. It's probably something nasty."
"Touch it," says Remus.
James regards him sceptically. "Really hope you are the clever one," he says, and reaches out.
Then he stills. "Odd," he says. "I've never seen anything so ugly in my life, but –"
"- But it's like you've known it for ages," completes Remus.
"It feels friendly," says James.
"You think –" says Andromeda slowly.
"Yes," says Remus.
"Regulus hid it in plain sight?" she says.
"What?" says James.
"Put it on the table," says Andromeda. "I'm not touching that without checking it thoroughly."
She looks around if any Muggles are watching. Fortunately, the wind has picked up, and most of the remaining guests have retreated inside the café. She casts a quick concealment charm over them that will make them unnoticeable to any passers-by for a couple of minutes.
Then she casts a number of silent spells.
"There's a Muffliato on it," she says.
"That one's mine," says Remus.
"Good thinking," says Andromeda. "The Confundus, too, I expect?"
Andromeda's wand movements become more complex. After a couple of minutes, she seems satisfied.
"No dark magic that I can identify," she says. "As Bellatrix Lestrange is my elder sister, I declare this thing harmless. Except for the hideousness. I'll Untransfigure it, shall I?"
"Please," says Remus, and Andromeda gives it a sharp tap.
There is a pop, the figurine vanishes, and there it is, in front of them. Sirius's wand. Elm tree and dragon heartstring, Remus knows it like he knows a brother.
James stares in awe. "Thirteen protective spells," he mutters. "And Regulus broke them all."
"Good boy," says Remus. "You're thinking what I'm thinking?"
"That this is all well and good, but what does it have to do with Mrs Black's wand?" says James.
"Okay, so you're not thinking what I'm thinking," says Remus. "Andromeda?"
She regards him curiously. "You said you didn't have to go to Grimmauld Place at all," she says, and gives Sirius's wand a meaningful look.
"Thirteen protective spells," says Remus. "You said it was excessive, Andromeda. And Regulus is many things, but he is not overly rebellious. Sending Sirius to us was probably his wild deed for the decade. Why would he care that Sirius gets his wand back? I say it's because he didn't want to see his effort wasted."
"Good boy," says James with some emphasis. "And a little shit, of course," he adds loyally, withdrawing his hand with a Quidditch player's reflexes before Andromeda can slap it. "But why make such a complicated song and dance around it?"
"So Sirius wouldn't know right away," says Remus. "The Imperius takes some time to wear off. Regulus was right, the absolute last thing Sirius needs right now is a wand."
Andromeda regards the wand lying on the table carefully.
"Just to make this perfectly clear, she says. "You think this is the wand that cast the Imperius? Sirius's wand?"
"Unless I'm wrong, and Regulus did it just to defy his parents," says Remus. "In any case, it's probably worth it to check this one before we break into Grimmauld Place."
"It could definitely explain why Sirius is so hopeless in fighting the Imperius," says Andromeda. "Jesus, his own wand. Of course, the orders would feel like his own thoughts to him. That bitch!"
She manages to startle herself with the swear. Of course, Nymphadora chooses this moment to stir in her pushchair, and they all hold their breath for a tense moment. Then a small voice pipes up.
"Mummy, what's a bitch?"
Trying very, very hard not to laugh, the boys exchange a look with Andromeda.
"A witch, love," says Andromeda. "Mummy said witch."
"Whosa witch, den?"
Andromeda smiles mischievously. "Your Great Aunt Walburga is a witch. A huge one. You can go back to sleep now."
Big blue eyes regard the two strangers curiously. Then the child decides not to be part of the boring conversation. "Okay." Nymphadora turns her head the other way and continues sleeping.
"All right, we have maybe ten minutes now until she wakes up properly," says Andromeda. "There's a spell to find out. Allow me?"
She looks around, but fortunately the Muggles are still ignoring them. Then she gingerly picks up Sirius's wand and taps it with her own. "Prior Incantato," she says.
And from the elm tree wand in her hand, smoke rises, coalesces into a figure. It's Sirius, turned away from them, his body tense, half-way through putting on his dress robes when he's disturbed by a noise. A ghostly light hits him in the back, and he shivers and turns, and his previously scowling face splits into a wide smile. There's no sound, but they don't need it. His mouth moves as he says the words. "Good morning, mother."
"There you have it," says Andromeda, and the figure collapses into smoke. Her shoulders sink helplessly. "I want to say I don't believe it," she says tonelessly. "But I do."
James nudges Remus. "Did you see it?" He seems, once again, like a ball of barely controlled anger.
"I saw it," says Remus. "We're such idiots."
"Saw what?" says Andromeda.
"I thought it was the Imperius that made him do it," says James.
"Yeah, me too. I really thought he just provoked them to hell and back, again –" says Remus. "Remind me to apologise."
"He probably did provoke them a little," says James fairly. "But he tried, didn't he? He really tried this time."
"Saw what?" repeats Andromeda.
"His hair," says James. "He'd already cut it. It didn't need the Imperius at all." He shakes his head. "We told him to try this summer," he says. "We told him to keep his head down and behave and just go with it, at least with their less insane demands, and he did, and they still –"
"Regulus did good this time," she says.
"I'm not so sure," says James darkly. "It doesn't need a particularly good person to be horrified by all this."
"He's a good boy," insists Andromeda. "Tell him that, will you? Tell Sirius. He can't give up on his brother yet."
"But he won't help," says James. "Regulus said so himself. He'll stand with them, he said."
"He helped," says Andromeda. "He did what he could. Going against this family is huge. I know, because I did it, and even I don't know if I could do it again."
Andromeda flips through her magazine until she finds the photograph of Sirius dancing with her sister, Bellatrix.
"They do your head in, you know," she says quietly. "Even after I left, I… I used to think I understood them. That it was all just a game that you had to play. Keep your head down, keep your opinions to yourself, be yourself in your own time only. Hold out until seventeen and you're free to go. That's how I did it. I thought Sirius should just stop provoking them."
"We've all thought this at some point," admits James.
"You're young," says Andromeda. "Naturally, you simplify. You want to understand. It wasn't until I had Nymphadora that I realised there is nothing to understand: That I couldn't lock her up in her room or slap her across the face any more than I could cut my own arm off."
She looks up from the magazine. "It's not us, it's them," she says. "That's something Sirius always knew. That you lose the game just by playing. It's something Regulus, I hope, is starting to realise."
James and Remus look at each other, and Remus knows James feels about as optimistic about Regulus Black as he does.
"You think this is it, then, Andromeda?" says James. "You think the curse will just wear off now?"
"As I said, I'm not an expert," she says. "But this is the wand that cast it. Yes, I think so."
"What if it doesn't?" says James. "Seriously, Andromeda, just once we need an adult to tell us what to do. What if it doesn't wear off?"
She looks at them, and sighs. "I'm sorry," she says, "but your only choice then is St. Mungo's. Spell Reversal. Unlike the Ministry, they solve problems first and ask questions later. There'll be a huge investigation – they're required to report dark magic – but Sirius won't die, James. Not from this."
James breathes out slowly, and Remus realises he has been harbouring much the same fear over the last few days.
"Thank you, Andromeda," says James.
"No need," says Andromeda. "We exiled Blacks need to stick together."
"Are there many more of you?" says Remus.
"A handful," says Andromeda with a smile. She gathers her wand and her purse, counting out Muggle money.
"Just a couple more things, though," she says. "Knowing Sirius, he'll have all these big complicated thoughts about free will and what not. It can be very confusing. He might not trust himself for a while. Or he might rebound, follow any impulse that turns up in his head, just because he can."
"He's already doing that," says James offhandedly, and Remus, very silently, agrees with that assessment.
"On quite a different level than what you're used to, I mean," says Andromeda. "And –" she hesitates. "Look, we don't really talk about any of that in our ancient and noble circles, but he might be… affected. More than he lets on."
"In what way?" asks James.
"He might be sad," she says. "Anxious. Angry. Or all three. None of which, I'm afraid, is handled well in our world. You may need to be quite a bit more forgiving than usual. And to slap some sense into him occasionally. I'll help if you need backup, okay?"
James finishes his coffee. "Thank you, Andromeda," he says. "We'd better get back before he follows through on his threat to eat Peter."
"Give him my love, will you?" says Andromeda. "And tell him he's always welcome in my home once this has all blown over."
They leave her there, in the Muggle café on the Thames waterfront, fussing over her waking child, and Remus can't help the impression that, despite the unfortunate name, Nymphadora is a very, very lucky kid.
"D'you have Muggle money on you?" asks James quietly as they're hurrying up Charing Cross Road.
"Couple of quid," says Remus. "Why?"
"Think they sell biscuits over there?"
"That's a hairdresser," says Remus. "Here, let me."
Minutes later, they emerge from a Marks & Spencer's with a family pack of Jammie Dodgers.
In the Leaky Cauldron, Remus steps into the fireplace right after James, but something is wrong. The exits whirl past him, but he can't see the Potters' living room.
"What the –" he hears James shouting. So he hasn't made it out either. Remus reaches and manages to grab James by the arm.
"Line's busy?" suggests Remus, but he has a very bad feeling about this.
"With what? My parents Apparate," says James. "Oh, I am going to kill him."
He doesn't say who he's going to kill, but with things progressing the way they do, Remus has a very clear idea. After a disorienting minute, the Floo network spits them out at their destination, sooty, confused, and angry.
"Thank fuck you two are here," says an embarrassed voice.
"Wormtail," says James, still cludging the package of Jammie Dodgers. "There'd better be an explanation for - this."
This is Peter, in the middle of the living room, ruffled and out of breath, his hands raised in a gesture of surrender. Alone.
"The moron is a head taller than me," says Peter. "Just tackled me down. Took my wand and bolted."
"Well?" snarls James. "Where has the moron gone?"
Peter takes a step back, recoiling from his friend's anger. "Where do you think?" he says.
To be continued.
Phew, nearly there! Really went down the rabbit hole in this one. Once again, thank you to everyone who’s commented, left kudos etc. It really makes my day, and I look forward to hearing what you think :)
And I apologise in advance for the biscuit metaphor; it ran away from me.
I can run using every last ounce of energy
I cannot, I cannot, I cannot run from my family
They’re hiding inside me
Corpses on ice
Come in if you’d like
Amanda Palmer, “Runs in the family”
James lets out an impressive string of expletives that would have earned Remus a month's worth of dishes duty in the Lupin household. Peter is equally taken in and only notices belatedly when the litany ends in a question.
"Pardon?" he says meekly.
"When, Wormtail," says James. "When did Sirius leave?"
"Only just now," says Peter. "If we go after him now –"
"Can't," says James. "Seriously, is no-one listening? We can't Floo into Grimmauld Place without the keyspell, we'll be ghosts! Doomed! Wandering the Floo network forever!"
James is, by now, equal parts angry and exasperated, which is not an environment in which lesser Marauders can thrive.
Thus, Peter winces. "Cheerful prospect," he says.
"You had one job, Peter," exclaims James. "One job!" He strides dramatically out of the room.
"Seriously!" says Peter, when James is momentarily out of earshot. "How is it my fault that whole family is crazy?"
Remus looks at Peter for a split moment, and he takes in all the things James must have missed, or rather, dismissed – that their friend is ruffled, and red-eyed, and that his lip is bleeding. That he put up a fight. Against Sirius. Who, yes, is a bit crazy.
"It's not your fault," Remus says quietly.
"I know that," says Peter. "Tell James, will you?"
They catch up with James at the foot of the stairs. "Anything else?" James says, as if they'd never lagged behind in the first place. "How did he seem?"
Peter is gasping from taking the stairs two steps at a time. "He asked your mum for a sandwich and ate half of it," he says. "We played Gobstones and he cheated. How in hell can you even cheat at Gobstones? I thought he was getting better!"
"Well, that's something," says James. "How did he get your wand? I mean, you had one, he didn't, shouldn't that even things out between you?"
"Well, you sort of need both hands for Gobstones –" begins Peter, but one withering look from James makes it clear he's not looking for an explanation. "I thought he'd improved!" squeals Peter. "I thought he was shaking it off! I'm sorry, I got careless…"
"Andromeda said the same," says James. "She said he'd get better now. She as good as promised!"
"She said he'd start to get better," says Remus fairly, but to be quite honest he's annoyed that it seems to be coming down to semantics.
But of course, he resorts to technicalities like James resorts to righteous anger and Peter resorts to panic, none of which is achieving anything except divide them. Sirius is in deep, deep trouble, the sort of trouble Remus doesn't even dare imagine, the sort of trouble that should be obsolete in this day and age. Remus hates how much this paralyses his brain.
Think, Lupin. Think.
"We should never have gone," insists James. "We should never have listened to a Black!"
"Yes, we should have," says Remus. "We should have listened to Sirius. Don't you realise? He was fighting it, but not the way we thought. All the times he told us he had to go back, he was warning us."
They're at the door to James's room now, and Remus lays a hand on James's arm. "This was always going to happen as soon as he got an opening," he says. "We got careless. This is not on Andromeda. And it's not on Peter. This is on us."
To say he is not bothered by how much sense Dark Magic makes to him sometimes would be a lie. It sort of reassures Remus that it doesn't make any sense at all to James, judging by his confused expression.
"Then we're fixing it," says James.
"What's the plan?" says Peter timidly. "What do we do? You're not going on the motorbike –"
"Flying takes too long," says James dismissively. "We're doing what we should have been doing all along."
"Which is what?" says Remus quietly.
James turns, and there it is again, that terrifyingly grown-up face that has been cropping up more and more since the beginning of the summer.
"We're writing to Dumbledore," says James.
Every concern Lyall Lupin has ever raised about alerting the authorities is frighteningly present in Remus's head.
Well then, he thinks. Best foot forward, Gryffindor. He nods and says, "Okay."
"Sirius was really opposed to the idea," Peter points out.
"Sirius isn't thinking straight," says James. "Dumbledore can't ignore this. It's a big intricate mess of lies and secrecy. This, right here, is exactly his jam. I'm sure he'll find something with which to blackmail the Blacks into staying quiet."
"You realise it's literally called blackmail because the Blacks invented it?" says Peter.
"Nah," says James, "that was just Sirius pulling your leg in third year."
He throws open the double door to his spacious bedroom and beelines towards the cluttered heap that used to be his desk. "But first," he says. "I'm going to tell Sirius exactly how much of an idiot he is."
"What?" says Peter.
"Got to be here somewhere…" mutters James, working through the mess on his desk, parchment, books, and knick-knacks flying everywhere.
"We're losing time, James," Remus points out, fearing some sort of hare-brained Marauder scheme that is going to take ages to develop and at least three failed attempts before it achieves anything.
"Exactly," says James. "It's happening right now. The moron has literally just left a minute ago. Let's just hope he is only ninety-nine per cent moron. Let's just hope he remembers – A-ha!"
He grabs for an object wedged between a box of owl treats and a stack of scribbled notes, and holds it up triumphantly.
Waving the others closer so they all have a view of the mirror's surface, James looks into it and says "Sirius!"
For a long, terrifying while, there is absolutely nothing. James's shoulders sag. "That idiot," he moans, staring down the inky blackness in the mirror. "Peter, go find some parchment and a quill in this mess."
"That is entirely your mess," says Peter, but James hushes him. "Sirius!" he says again.
And then, finally, an image of Sirius's face flashes over the mirror as he examines himself in it.
" – thinks it looks absolutely ridiculous." Sirius's voice is as clear as if he were standing here beside them. "What do you think? Should I let it grow out again?"
Remus holds his breath as the Sirius in the mirror winks at them.
"Sirius, you absolute fool." The other voice belongs to Regulus Black. It is fainter, but the shock is clearly audible. "Did I not warn you?"
The mirror goes dark as Sirius puts the mirror away, probably somewhere in his sleeve.
Fortunately, the connection stays live. They can hear various sounds - bubbling, clinking, a muttering house-elf - in what Remus can only assume is the Blacks' kitchen. There's a rustling as Sirius hurries off somewhere, the sounds of steps as someone's following.
"Where is she?" says Sirius.
"Sirius, go back this instant," says Regulus. "I've never seen her so angry. There's no telling what she'll do now –"
"Oh, let me guess. Did she find out you stole my wand back?"
There is a pause. "Yes," says Regulus finally in what Remus thinks is a rather prissy tone. "Though I'd rather hoped you wouldn't. Clearly I overestimated your friends."
"Nah," says Sirius. "As usual, everyone just underestimated me."
In James's bedroom, the friends look at each other. Remus feels for Sirius's wand in his pocket. "How on earth –" he mouths.
"Did she punish you, for helping me?" says Sirius's voice from the mirror.
"I'll have you know that she didn't," says Regulus loftily.
The sound of rushing ceases as Sirius stops in his tracks. "Life lesson, I suppose," he says. "Every prima donna needs a coward." His voice is surprisingly gentle.
Involuntarily, Remus feels his teeth grind. With the Black family, the whole story is usually hidden somewhere in the gaps of what Sirius tells them. So, in a way, Remus should have guessed. After all, Sirius is comparably open about how much he hates his mother, but he never, ever mentions his other parent.
Remus hopes that man hates himself as much as he deserves.
He supposes it's telling, too, that Regulus doesn't even rise to this new insult against their family. "Never you mind," he says. "Leave. She'll just put you under again –"
"I'm armed this time," says Sirius.
Regulus laughs. "I'm not sure that wand qualifies," he says. "Actually, what is that, gooseberry and Pygmy Puff hair?"
"Spruce and Kneazle whisker," mutters Peter under his breath.
"It doesn't need to be impressive, it just needs to get the job done," says Sirius, and that is probably all the sticking up he'll ever do for Peter's wand.
"Says the one wielding fourteen inches on a daily basis," says Regulus, and they can hear the smirk in the soundwaves.
Sirius cracks up. It's the first time Remus ever hears Sirius laugh at something his younger brother said, and of course, he thinks, it has to be wand innuendo, and of course, it has to be at Peter's expense. That's probably why Regulus is doing it: Change the subject, ease the tension, take Sirius's mind off whatever he thinks his mission here is. The kid really is cleverer than they all give him credit for.
Unfortunately, Sirius is still an idiot. "Three times Hogwarts duelling champion. I'll risk it," says Sirius. "Where is she?"
There's a long-suffering sigh. "Your friends may be listening through that god-damned mirror, but they can't help you," says Regulus.
"I won't," says Regulus. "You leave now, and no-one will know you were ever here. You go to her, you're on your own." He pauses, and then a word crosses his lips that Remus wouldn't have expected. "Please," Regulus says. "Sirius, please, just walk away. There is no winning this."
"I can't walk away," snaps Sirius. Apparently, he has noticed it, too, if the tightness in his voice is anything to go by. "Where is she, Regulus?" he repeats.
Regulus exhales, a sound of defeat. "The drawing room," he says, "and may God have mercy on your soul."
"Thank you," says Sirius, and then there's what sounds like thunder as Sirius runs up the staircase.
James looks at his two remaining friends, shrugs, and decides to risk it. "Sirius," he hisses into the mirror. "Sirius, you colossal idiot! Listen to your brother and go."
The thunder stops as, Remus imagines, Sirius ducks down into a corner somewhere.
"The last thing I need right now is disembodied voices from my sleeve," says Sirius very, very quietly. "Shut up and listen or I'll leave the mirror right here in the staircase. Is that clear?"
"Do you know what you're doing?" hisses Remus.
Sirius laughs. "My mother is so used to acting on every single of her whims in the privacy of our house," he says. "Just once, let her insanity be public. Shut up. Listen."
"If she kills you," says James, "we're ditching you and adopting your brother, at least he doesn't have a bag of Every Flavour Beans where his brain's supposed to be." He looks around. "All in favour, I hope."
"If she kills me," says Sirius grimly, "you'd better."
The friends are silent at this, and Sirius apparently takes it as consent to hurry onwards.
Peter, meanwhile, has finally found a piece of crumpled parchment and a battered quill in James's chaos, but now he's just standing there. "She won't, will she?" he says very, very quietly. "Am I going crazy? Did we take a wrong turn into the bloody Middle Ages?"
At this point, no-one is willing to take a bet on whether they are about to witness the ritual sacrifice of their best friend. For a while, there's just noise – Grimmauld Place is many things, and one of those things is that it's ridiculously big on the inside – and then there's silence.
More silence, as they're praying for Sirius to regain his senses. No such luck.
"Well," Sirius says cheerfully. "Here goes nothing."
He takes a deep breath, and actually knocks – and Sirius has never, in all the time that Remus has known him, knocked anywhere, ever. Then a door creaks open and shut.
More silence. And then,
"Lo, the prodigal son returneth home."
Walburga Black's voice, when she's not yelling, is a surprise. As rich and soft as velvet, as cool as water. "I've been expecting you," she adds.
"Of course you have, you ordered me here," says Sirius. "Apologies for taking so long."
"And I forgive you. You were held up, I know," she says, and her voice betrays nothing. "Do you know what this is, Sirius?"
"…That is my name, floating in the air," says Sirius. "May I ask why?"
"I cut it out," says Walburga Black dreamily. "I can put it back. There's still time."
She pauses, and when she resumes speaking, her voice is warmer. "Your dinner's in the oven and Kreacher's straightened up your room. Please don't run from us anymore. Please let me put your name back in the tapestry. Will you do that for me, Sirius?"
She sounds so different from what Remus knows, so desperate, so heart-broken. Not even Sirius finds words to cut through the silence.
"I'll tell you how we'll do it," Walburga says. "We'll leave you to yourself, is that all right? We'll give you time to think things through. When you're ready, we can talk. We'll heal as a family. And then we'll put this summer behind us. No-one will ever have to know you ran away. Does that sound reasonable?"
There's another drawn-out pause, this one full of expectation, and then: "It's all I could hope for, after this summer," says Sirius softly.
At this, James covers the mirror with his hand. "He can't be bloody serious," he hisses softly.
"Unfortunately –" starts Peter, but James shushes him and takes his hand away.
"- all sixteen once," says Walburga with a clipped laugh. "It's a complicated age."
"Yes, well," says Sirius in what Remus identifies as his diplomatic voice, the one he occasionally uses on McGonagall when he wants out of detention. "Of course, my complicated age started when I was eleven. I realise it can't have been easy for you."
It never works on McGonagall, so it's positively startling when it works on Walburga.
"I remember," says Walburga. "So many letters I wrote to that Dumbledore, pleading with him to reconsider the Sorting. It was the longest in Hogwarts history, wasn't it?"
It had been, thought Remus, at least technically, but Sirius had held that particular record for a mere half hour before little Peter came along. Remus himself had almost been a Ravenclaw. Funny how things worked out sometimes.
"I was pleading, too, remember?" says Sirius. He laughs softly. "My first year, I spent whole evenings camped out in front of Dumbledore's office. He never budged."
"Suppose we let this go now," says Walburga. "Perhaps it's best not to dwell on an old hat's silly mistake any longer. At least… at least it's not Hufflepuff."
At that, her son turns serious, all mannerisms gone. "But it wasn't, was it?" he says. "It wasn't a mistake."
"How do you mean?" Walburga, too, has changed her tone. But whereas her son has grown guarded, she has grown cold.
"Gryffindor, home of the brave," Sirius says with a certain amount of derision. "Home of the foolish, as you were right to point out. If there's one thing we don't expect, it's to be cursed when our backs are turned. Had I been a Slytherin, you couldn't have done it."
There is another long, uncomfortable pause and Remus realises he can't hear anything else. No sign of movement. Just mother and son, facing each other in the large, cold drawing room of their family home.
"Had you been a Slytherin, I wouldn't have needed to," says Walburga Black softly. "Look at Regulus. Look how he thrives."
The Sirius they know would probably have pointed out how Regulus is currently thriving in the kitchen of all places, with only Kreacher for company.
"Why, Mother?" Sirius asks. "Why did you do it?"
"My son," she says. "You were struggling so much, I couldn't bear it."
Sirius's disbelief is almost tangible. "You couldn't bear it?"
"Remember the wedding," says Walburga. "You laughed with your brother. You danced with Bella. You congratulated Narcissa and wished her well. You had a cigar with your father, and you had port with me. You were kind to your family, and your family, in turn, was kind to you. How did that make you feel?"
There is another of those long pauses. "Like I'd never been so happy in my life," says Sirius. "Not with my family. Not once since I started Hogwarts."
"And do you see now," says Walburga, "how easy it is? You don't have to struggle. You could have this every day." Her voice breaks. "I did it to show you that you are loved, Sirius. So, so much. By all of us."
Sirius takes a deep breath. It's a sound that shouldn't be full of emotion, but somehow is, and Remus understands something about Sirius that has eluded him so far: How his friend is so starved for affection he'll take a scrap of it and turn it into a lifetime of devoted friendship. How they're probably all very, very lucky they and not the Slytherins got to him first.
"And you couldn't just tell me?" Sirius whispers.
Walburga laughs, and it's a tender noise none of them would have expected. "Since when have you listened to a word I said, my son?"
Sirius seems to consider this. "Point," he concedes.
No-one is saying anything for a long while. Remus is looking over at a dejected James, who looks as if he wants to reach through the mirror and shake his best friend, the boy who once spent twenty-three minutes trying to convince the Sorting Hat to put him into Slytherin.
"May I ask a question, Mother?" says Sirius finally.
"Anything," she replies.
"If you love me, then help me understand this," he says softly. "You starved me for three days. You kept me awake. You had me very nearly run into Father's Floo trap without the keyspell. Was that love, too?"
"I didn't know," says Walburga. It's almost a whisper. "I missed you so much. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. Your brother returned and told me you felt the same, but still, you wouldn't come home. I only wished for you to come home, Sirius."
"Home," he repeats.
Their words hang in the air, like ink in water before it dissipates, twirling, entangling. No, not ink, thinks Remus. Poison.
"Come home to what, Mother?" he says finally. "Another Unforgivable?"
"How could you say that to me?" she says, and now her voice is choking up. "What monster must you think I am? When Regulus told me you knew about the curse, I was devastated. I never meant for you to notice."
She sighs, a long, shuddering sound. "How did you notice, Sirius?" she says. "Where did I first go wrong?"
Remus fully expects Sirius to throw his brother under the proverbial bus, but to his surprise, it doesn't happen.
"Day two. Page twelve," says Sirius calmly.
"Ah," says Walburga.
"The heir of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black turns the heads of more than a few girls of Slytherin house," Sirius quotes. "You'll find a sixteen-year-old boy has a sixth sense for his mother's presence in his head when he's trying to enjoy a snog behind the gazebo."
"I see," says Walburga. All remnants of emotion, fake or otherwise, are gone from her voice.
"Let me be perfectly clear on how fucked up that was," says Sirius conversationally. "I've never been so happy to see Reggie's stupid face in my life as when he crashed that little encounter."
"Language, Sirius," says Walburga. "Of course. The Imperius works best in the direction of your natural… inclinations. You wanted to fit in, so you never suspected a thing. But then I got ambitious. Flirting with girls -"
"Flirting with Slytherins," Sirius corrects her, but there's something in his tone, and the damage is done.
"No," says Walburga. "No, I think it was flirting with girls that did it."
There is a long, poignant pause. Then Sirius sighs.
"You are not one for subtlety, are you, Mother," he says. "That's not what made it fucked up. It was you."
There is a sharp sound that is unmistakeably a slap. No sound from Sirius. Only James is looking murderous.
"I said to watch your language," snaps Walburga.
"I find my use of language perfectly appropriate," says Sirius, disturbingly calm.
"Oh, you would." Walburga laughs bitterly. "I must admit I feared this. Ever since your despicable friend's twisted little remark at King's Cross –"
"Oh, remind me, was that when he said he'd lick whichever part of me he chose?" says Sirius. "That was a joke, Mother. What was twisted was you telling James, in the first place, that he wasn't fit to lick my boots. Who does that?"
"And you have the nerve to stand here," hisses Walburga. "In the house of your forefathers. Depraved. Defiant. Proud. You never meant it, did you? You were never going to make amends."
"Of course not," says Sirius. "You were never going to stop. Not when I'm seventeen. Probably not when I'm dead. You'll just demand and demand -"
"Only what you owe me," scoffs Walburga. "But you were never going to assume your proper place, head the House, marry well, give me grandchildren to spoil. Is that too much to ask?"
"Let me be perfectly clear, Mother," says Sirius. "I wouldn't trust you with a cactus. I certainly wouldn't let any child of mine come within a mile of you."
He pauses for effect. "I am done here, Mother," he says finally. "They don't call them Unforgivable for nothing."
They hear the door opening again, but Walburga isn't done with him yet.
"Which one is it?" she hisses after him. "Is it the Pureblood turncoat? I do hope it's the Pureblood at least. Or that defective mutt with the worm-eaten wand? Or is it the scarred one, frankly I don't even know what that young man is –"
There is a very eloquent pause. James, Remus, and Peter all look at each other. But of course, Sirius has no obligation to satisfy their curiosity in front of his mother. Whatever his response to that one is, it's non-verbal.
But effective. "I gave you life," screeches Walburga.
"And I am returning to it, Mother," says Sirius. "Enjoy your parting shots. Goodbye." There's the sound of creaking floorboards as he turns, once again, to leave. While Walburga talks herself into a rage in the background, James covers the mirror with his hand again.
"Did you guys know?" whispers Peter. "That he's, you know…"
"I… had a feeling," Remus says weakly.
"I knew," says James. Peter and Remus both stare at him.
"What? I had Moony here figured out in six months," he says. "I was just too polite to say something until the rest of you morons caught up."
"Vermin, befouling the house of my ancestors –"
At least, with all the screaming they don't have to worry they're being overheard.
"Well, I for one am completely flabbergasted," says Peter. "How did you guess, James?"
"He thinks Lily Evans is plain," says James proudly. "He said so in fourth year."
"James," Remus says with some exasperation. "Just because someone has enough self-preservation to not appear overly interested in Lily Evans while you're present doesn't mean they're gay."
"Degenerate, unnatural –"
"Current events would suggest I was right about this," says James with a shrug. "How did you guess, Moony?"
"I," says Remus. "There were subtle… signs."
"Like what?" says Peter.
Like Sirius kissing me full on the mouth in the middle of the night, I suppose that'll tip anyone off, thinks Remus, but his friends have probably had enough revelations for one day and in any case, he is still processing that one.
He improvises instead. "Really now, the leather jacket?" he says.
"Besmirching the name of this family –"
"I want a leather jacket," says James, slightly panicky.
"And I'm sure Evans will admire it," says Remus in a soothing voice. "Come on. It's obvious if you know what to look for. Have you not noticed how he eats Jammie Dodgers?"
"By inserting them into his face? I don't know, Moony," says James. "The only one here who eats biscuits weird is you."
"Subtle signs, is all I'm saying."
"Like, you disassemble and admire each one individually?" says James obliviously. "And you don't even care whether you're dunking a digestive or a custard cream into your tea?"
"Excuse me, I just really like biscuits of all kinds," says Remus, thinks this through, and cringes.
"Back to the topic on hand," says James, who, bless him, has not realised that they are, in fact, still on topic. "If either of you wankers have a problem with Sirius, you can say sayonara to me, too. Is that understood?"
Remus rolls his eyes. "I may be repeating myself here," he says, "but are you fucking kidding me right now?"
James snorts. "Frankly, Mrs Black doesn't even know what you are, young man, but you're lucky your friends don't seem to mind –"
They look at Peter.
"For five years that moron's been fucking talking in his sleep," says Peter, "and this is what I'm supposed to have a problem with? Screw you both, seriously."
"Good boys," says James. He removes his hand from the mirror.
The situation seems to have escalated a bit in the meantime.
"I'll burn you! I'll burn you right out of - "
"Protego," shouts Sirius. He's laughing. He also appears to be running. "Three times Hogwarts duelling champion, Mother."
"You leave through that fireplace," hisses Walburga Black, "and you will never set foot in this house again."
"Promise?" says Sirius.
"Downstairs," hisses James, and they're hurrying down, James still holding on to the mirror, and into the living room.
On the stairs, Peter is tugging at Remus's sleeve. "What?"
The grin on Peter's face is surprisingly sly. "Want me to explain the biscuit thing to James?"
"I'm sure he'll figure it out eventually," says Remus, as they're hurrying downstairs. "Just give him a couple of years -"
By the time they're in the downstairs corridor, the shouting has stopped. Something has interrupted Walburga's tirades, thinks Remus, but what? All that comes from Sirius's mother now is a sigh, a sound of defeat.
"Sirius, wait," says Walburga finally. "It gets cold in the night."
"… What?" Sirius sounds as surprised as Remus is.
"Allow a mother," and her voice actually breaks, "this last indulgence. Kreacher, bring Sirius's travelling cloak."
There's a crack on the other side of the mirror as Kreacher Disapparates from the kitchen.
"Mother," says a different voice. Oh, thinks Remus. That must be it. Regulus had been in the kitchen when Sirius had arrived, and he's still there. Walburga, of course, is acting the broken-hearted mother for the benefit of her younger son, who, by the sound of it, has scrambled up to comfort her.
"Are you serious, Mother?" says Sirius incredulously.
"Those things of Potter's don't fit you well," comes her muffled voice. "Look at the state of you. That leather jacket. Disgraceful!"
"No, seriously?" repeats Sirius. "What happened to I'll burn you?"
"Oh, Sirius," she sniffs. "I meant the tapestry. You didn't think -"
"Master Sirius's travelling cloak," snarls a voice that can only be Kreacher.
Sirius is laughing like he can't stop. "I hope you're taking notes, Regulus," he says. "Goodbye."
They fall into the Potters' living room now, James, and Remus and Peter. Green flames rise in the fireplace, and Sirius emerges, still laughing, clutching his expensive bespoke travelling cloak.
No-one really has anything to say for a moment.
"I would check that for curses, if I were you," says Remus finally, and Sirius turns on the spot, chucks the cloak into the fireplace, and incinerates it with a flick of Peter's wand.
"Did you hear that?" he says. "Did you bloody hear that?"
James grin covers his whole face. "Mistress gave Sirius clothes!" he intones. "Sirius is freeee!"
James is so amused by his own joke, and probably by the sheer relief they're all feeling, that he's positively cracking up. As usual, it's infectious.
Only when Sirius turns to them, he looks suddenly unsure of himself, which is not a look that settles on his face often.
James manages to stop laughing for a moment. "Don't worry, they're cool," he says. "We discussed this and we decided we don't care how you eat your biscuits."
"Or who you eat them with," Peter mutters under his breath.
"Biscuits?" says Sirius.
"An unfortunate metaphor," says Remus.
"Uh – "
"You know how James only ever craves ginger snaps, but they don't agree with him?" says Peter, who is clearly having way too much fun with this.
"What? Literally none of that is true!" says James.
"Anyway, that sort of metaphor," says Peter.
"Ah," says Sirius.
James is beaming. "I read the signs, man."
"He really didn't," says Remus. "But his heart's in the right place."
"Seriously, though, biscuits? How in blazes did that one come about?" says Sirius. He is quite obviously so confused, he's forgotten to be worried.
"Haven't got the faintest," says James. "Don't stress yourself out, though, I laid down the law."
Then James pounces, pulling Sirius into a tight hug and burying him in expletives, telling him in no uncertain words that he is a moron and he shouldn't ever have gone back and what was he thinking.
"God damn it, Potter," says Sirius, eventually extricating himself from the temporary boy symbiosis. "I've only been disowned for about three minutes, I'm not looking to replace my mum just yet."
Remus thinks it through – recent revelations, last night's confused kissing, Sirius still looking more than a bit peaky – and gives him a more careful hug, which Sirius returns just as cautiously.
Then Sirius turns to Peter and has the good grace to look guilty for a moment.
"Sorry, Wormy," he says. "I didn't mean to hit you quite so hard."
Peter shrugs. "I let you win."
Sirius holds out the wand for Peter. "Thanks for letting me borrow this," he says. "Don't ever let anyone give you shit about your wand. It's… ah… perfectly adequate."
"You're the wand expert, of course," Peter says saltily. "Tosser." Then relief spreads across his face like a wildfire, and he hugs Sirius, too.
Then James, who is utterly unable to get rid of the huge grin on his face, hugs them all, smushes them together like a big Marauder heap.
"That's," says Sirius, who seems to have trouble breathing through all the attention. "That's quite enough, we're British."
Then James turns towards his father, who, Remus realises, has been sitting in an armchair trying to read the newspaper, and now just sits there in quiet confusion.
"Oy, Dad," he says. "Sirius is living with us now, is that okay?"
To be continued.
Thank you all for sticking with the story until the end – well, I say end. I think by the end of this you'll know that I'm terrible at ending things. Writing this was fun, and rewarding, and, at times, creepy (there were two days that I spent in the head of Walburga Black, and let me just say I hope it was worth it!).
If you read this far, I'd be happy to hear what you think – the good and the bad :)
It's been a long day. So much has happened that it should have been over at least three times already: First Regulus, then the telephone cell, then Andromeda in London, then Sirius's madcap expedition to Grimmauld Place. Then, during dinner, Professor McGonagall turns up unexpectedly for a long, serious discussion with James's parents (which the friends find themselves comically unable to eavesdrop on), and then somehow everyone scatters and does their own thing.
But there's still a bit left of the day, and Remus borrows James's owl and writes a note to his parents. It takes him a while, and it's still a fairly short note, because it'll have to be either that or a novel.
Dear Mum and Dad
You'll be happy to know that our poshest friend has managed to sort himself out to his satisfaction. I'm staying on for a couple of days to see if it holds.
He says thank you.
See you soon,
There's a number of things he would like to add to the letter, but doesn't know how to word. Things like, I know we've had rotten luck in the past, but we seem to be doing okay, don't we? Things like, I've come to really appreciate the fact that you're not crazy. He'll have to find a way to tell them when he gets the chance. In writing, it sounds stupid.
Unbelievably, it's still bright and warm when he steps outside. As he watches the owl flutter off into the sunset, someone comes up behind him.
"Evening, Professor," he says, without turning around.
"You realise it's a bit disconcerting when you do that," says Minerva McGonagall, stepping into his field of view. Even on this stifling summer evening, she is still dressed in tartan robes that may have well been a royal ermine coat, with no hairpin out of place.
Seeing professors out of school is always a bit weird, Remus thinks. Like sighting an alien, or a celebrity. He resists the urge to ask her for a photo.
"Apologies, Professor," he says. "All sorted out, then?"
"Not much left," says McGonagall. "Your friend burned his bridges very thoroughly."
"Good for him," says Remus softly. He should have guessed that, even in the absence of a legal Armageddon, there is still an official side to this thing, involving school representatives and flustered Ministry officials and signatures here, here, and here.
McGonagall regards him for a moment. "Agreed," she says finally.
"A question, Professor?" he says.
She inclines her head regally.
"How did you know to come here? We were going to owl Professor Dumbledore," eventually, he thinks, "but we never got around to it."
"Mr and Mrs Potter, of course," says McGonagall, "and I know you didn't."
His objection to her slightly reproachful tone seems to show up on his face, because she adds, "Mr Black was very clear about his reasons to not involve the authorities. And I am sorry to say that, in the current political climate, I do not disagree with his assessment of the… volatility of the situation."
Remus studies her as intently as he dares without arousing suspicion. How much does she know? If his own father can identify the Imperius on a couple of wedding photographs, then surely Dumbledore or McGonagall will be able to. Do they even read Witch Weekly?
Her face gives nothing away.
"Well then, Mr Lupin," she says, "I must return to my work. I hope you are having a good summer regardless."
He nods. "And you."
Even the Crack when she Disapparates sounds dignified.
In some corner of his brain, he is curious what work is so important that McGonagall – a teacher - can't wait to return to it in the middle of her summer holidays. But figuring that one out will have to wait for another day, he decides, because it's the middle of his summer holidays, too, and the day has been long enough.
It's the music that draws him into the garden. Acoustic guitar and a soft, knowing, young voice, like nothing he's ever heard before. Certainly not from his friends. He's not even sure they know that guitars come in any other variant than electric and distorted.
He walks towards it, and there's Sirius, next to the dog roses, kneeling in front of his motorbike with a spanner and a vexed expression. He has the Potters' enchanted gramophone propped up on a chair, and a record is spinning. Next to it lies the Jammie Dodgers family pack, severely depleted by now.
"What has evil James done to you," Sirius mutters under his breath. "You poor, beautiful thing."
"Not the soundtrack I'd have chosen for motorcycle repair," says Remus.
"It's not The Stooges, no," says Sirius. "But I'm not repairing, am I? Repairing would imply I'd get somewhere. Eventually." His hands and forearms are black with motor oil.
"Who is that?" says Remus, gesturing to the spinning record.
"Nick Drake," says Sirius. "Album's called Pink Moon. Evans recommended it once when, according to her, I was moping."
Remus considers this from all sides. "And did she mean for you to stop moping by throwing yourself off the Astronomy Tower?"
Sirius gives him a tired smile. "It's not sad. It's thoughtful."
"It's hypnotic," tries Remus.
Remus considers walking away. He is getting the distinct impression Sirius is not in the mood for company, and really, no-one would be, he thinks, after spending every second in company for three days, being looked after like a child who couldn't be trusted not to poke a fork into the sockets.
But he decides, for once in his life, to be annoying, because Sirius is out here on his own and he's listening to acoustic guitar music played by dead young people who don't sound a day older than Sirius himself.
He sits down in the grass, watching Sirius, who is still glaring at the motorbike as if it might break down and tell him what's wrong.
"Minnie sorted you out good and proper, then?" Remus says.
"Not much left," he says. "She went and talked to my parents. Very brief conversation, she said. Hold these for me."
He deposits a number of screws and nuts in Remus's hand before carefully putting back a side panel.
"And?" says Remus.
"Well," says Sirius. "I'm disowned. Properly, officially disowned. Burned-off-the-tapestry disowned, like Andromeda was."
"Andromeda seems to be dealing just fine," says Remus carefully. Watching Sirius working with his hands is a wildly different sight than watching him do magic, but no less fascinating. There is so much concentration and care in every movement. So much forethought. With magic, it's as if he's always in the moment, always fighting.
"Right? It's gonna be great! But that's not even the best bit." He snaps his fingers and Remus hands him back the screws, one by one. "I also lost my designated plot in the Black mausoleum –"
"I suppose you will be able to live with that –"
"- and I'm banned from the Gringotts vault."
"Ouch," says Remus.
"Yep," says Sirius. "And here I am, with exactly two Sickles and nine Knuts in my trousers. But Minnie says Hogwarts has a fund for disadvantaged children. For school supplies and stuff. Can you believe that?"
"I definitely can," says Remus quietly.
"I told her I'd just leech off James," says Sirius offhandedly. And that is just so typical of rich kids, thinks Remus. Even when they hit financial rock bottom, they expect to fall softly. And the annoying thing is, they often do.
"Oh, and they've signed a thing that they're giving up custody, thank God," says Sirius, "so James's parents have agreed to step in for all official purposes, and you know them, they can't say no to me."
"Okay, I bet that doesn't sound as alarming to you as it does to me," says Remus. "Really, though, isn't it a bit gratuitous at this point? You're seventeen in a few months."
"See, I told Minnie as much," says Sirius, "but I have been informed that this is the twentieth century, and not even the Blacks can just leave their underage heir to starve on the streets, that's considered archaic for some reason. It was either the Potters or the Ministry."
"And are you happy with how it turned out?" says Remus carefully.
"Happy?" says Sirius. "Lupin, I'm over the moon." He catches his friend's expression and winks. "Figure of speech," he adds.
The truth is, Remus has seen him happier.
Sirius returns his full concentration to the motorbike, so Remus takes out the three special editions of Witch Weekly, because there's something he's been meaning to check.
Why has he never wondered how wizarding photographs work? Who are the tiny people waving in these pictures? And where do they go when they leave their frames?
Because, as expected, Sirius has left – has been made to leave? - all the photographs he was in. Bellatrix is left standing still in the middle of a frenzied ballroom, a terrifying smile on her face. Regulus is watching the fireworks on his own, his expression unreadable. And on the group photo, the gap left by Sirius has simply closed up, with Orion and Walburga Black trapping their younger son between them.
It is done, he realises. They have banished him, a clean, quick break, and you'd never notice the fault lines except if you knew where to look. Gone, too, is any evidence of the Imperius that could be picked up by people like Lyall Lupin or Albus Dumbledore. Clever Blacks.
Remus startles when Sirius throws first the spanner and then the screwdriver against the wall of the house, then retrieves both and continues to glower at the motorbike.
"What's wrong with it?" says Remus.
"Nothing," says Sirius. "I've replaced the spark plugs and reattached the petrol line and checked the wiring and everything is absolutely a hundred per cent where it's supposed to be. It just won't start."
He wipes his face, leaves a long dark streak of motor oil on his forehead.
"I thought it flew with magic," says Remus carefully. To be fair, he knows nothing about this motorcycle and very little about motorcycles in general.
"It flies with magic," says Sirius. "Everything else is Muggle technology. I was going to present it for my Muggle Studies end of year project, but James pointed out it's highly illegal to charm a Muggle artefact. Spoilsport."
Remus has always known that Sirius can be absolutely brilliant at times, but it's usually so hidden in the madness that he can't help but be amazed whenever the brilliance crops up.
Sirius sits back on his heels, pondering. For a while there's no sound but the music from the still-spinning record, that lonely guitar and the voice, so bright and so dark at the same time.
That music must really be getting to Remus, because he asks, "Something on your mind?"
"A number of things, yes," says Sirius thoughtfully. He looks at Remus, and his face betrays nothing. "Do you fancy guys, Moony?" he asks.
It's probably a fair question under the circumstances, but Remus hasn't expected him to bring this up so soon. Or at all. He is still scrambling for an answer when Sirius adds, "Sorry, guess I should have lead with that last night, huh?"
Remus laughs. "Yeah, well, we established timing's not your forte."
"So do you?"
Some rigid little habit inside Remus advocates strongly to keep this secret, because he is so used to keeping secrets, and admittedly also because Sirius knows most of them anyway, and it can be unsettling to be known so thoroughly. But then, Sirius has held his hand and kissed him on the mouth. It is not like he is going to run screeching into the woods.
Still. It's a surprisingly hard question to answer. "Little bit," Remus concedes after much deliberation.
"Little bit?" says Sirius. "How can you fancy guys a little bit?"
"It's not fancying guys," says Remus, scratching his head. If he absolutely has to explain this, it may as well be accurate. "It's not like I fantasise about Ludo Bagman changing out of his sweaty Quidditch robes or anything," he adds. "I don't really think about it."
Sirius laughs. "You've got to fancy something, Moony. So what is it? Guys? Girls? I don't know, books? Chocolate? Cups of tea? Biscuits? I'm not judging, mind."
"Let's not bring up biscuits in this context ever again," says Remus.
"You've got to have given this some thought," says Sirius, "you think about everything."
But it's true, Remus wants to argue. This is one of the few things in life he hasn't even attempted to over-analyse. Whatever it is that attracts him in other people seems to crop up in boys as often as it does in girls, and that's it.
Maybe it's to do with changing into a great big animal every month, he supposes: Next to that, subtler lines just blur. Others appear unexpectedly. Viewed purely from a point of attraction, he sees much less difference between Sirius and his stunning cousin Bellatrix than between Sirius and, say, Peter.
He'll be damned if he tells Sirius that, though. "It's just people," he says instead. "The grand majority of whom I don't fancy."
"Because they dog-ear library books and can't brew a good cuppa?"
"Oh, I don't know," says Remus lightly. "I do like a rebel sometimes."
And that, he thinks, is probably as bold as Remus J. Lupin is ever going to be. It has Sirius temporarily shut up, at least.
Remus takes a peak into the package of Jammie Dodgers to see if it's worth stealing one. There's two left, and he does. "How about you?" he says.
"How about me –" says Sirius. "You heard it all. Were you not paying attention?"
"I heard your mother," says Remus. "I wasn't going to take her word for it." He separates the two halves of the biscuit, then eats them separately, saving the jam part for last, like he's always done. Only now he feels self-conscious about it. Thanks, James.
"Probably for the best," says Sirius. He sighs. "I thought I had it figured out, you know, but – listen, Moony, have you ever –"
Remus gives it a few seconds, but even then, that sentence isn't any closer to completion. Sirius, meanwhile, is turning the spanner in his hands.
"Have I ever what?" Remus prompts.
"James I'd know instantly," says Sirius, eyes on the spanner and his hands, "because he is very fond of oversharing, but apparently he's saving himself for Evans and I don't see that happening any time soon, do you?"
"Not in a million years," says Remus, who is starting to get a glimpse of what this is about.
"Peter I'd be willing to guess no," says Sirius with a cruel smile. "But you. You are such a bloody puzzle sometimes. I really don't know what you're up to when we're not there to keep watch."
"Oh," says Remus. Yes, it's definitely that. "Oh. Sorry to disappoint, but the answer is, again, little bit."
"Oh, you have got to be pulling my leg," says Sirius incredulously. "How can you have had sex a little bit?"
Remus shrugs. "Okay, mostly no, if you're going to be technical about it."
"That's even worse," says Sirius.
"Remus John Lupin," says Sirius. "It's a simple question. Have you, or have you not, been naked with another person?"
"I have not," says Remus, and Sirius grins with what seems to be some sort of embarrassed relief.
"Been naked," Remus clarifies after a moment.
"Good Lord," says Sirius. "… Why not?"
Remus shrugs. "Scars," he says.
Sirius sighs. "Sorry," he says, and that is perhaps the most surprising part of the day. But clearly he can't contain his curiosity for long, because he follows that up with, "Boy or girl?"
There's a whop and an undignified yelp from Remus as Sirius throws the last biscuit at his head. "I don't believe it!" Sirius says. "At the same time?"
Just for the confectionery attack, Remus delays his response for a few torturous seconds. "No," he admits finally.
"Well, that's a relief," says Sirius. "Still. How can I not know this?"
"Does it matter?" says Remus quietly, gathering his dignity while picking crumbs out of his hair.
"I don't know," say Sirius. "At the wedding, it felt like it should matter. Like it should matter a lot, actually, I mean –"
Sometimes Remus wishes he weren't quite such a quick thinker, because the horror of this thought unfolds with a swiftness that makes him nauseated. Day two, page twelve, he thinks. Disgraced heir of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black turns the heads of more than a few girls of Slytherin house while under the Imperius curse.
"Well, shit," he says. "Did you –" he starts, but no, that sounds wrong. "Did they –" he tries, but that's not much better, under the circumstances. "Did she –" and now that he's identified the culprit, he still can't bring himself to say it.
"It was just kissing behind the gazebo," says Sirius defensively. "Reggie crashed that party, remember?"
"Phew," says Remus, and then realises he's said it out loud.
"What?" Sirius adds. "Warm night, fireworks, and I suppose even a Slytherin girl can be quite charming outside her natural habitat. But I could see it, Moony. I could see where this was going, and it seemed inevitable, and I was all set to go along with it, if you catch my drift. What does this mean, Moony?"
"It means," says Remus, choosing his words very deliberately, "that I am going to drown your mother in a pond one of these days."
"Yeah, well, get in the queue," says Sirius darkly. "But seriously, what does it mean? I was fairly sure I was probably gay, and I was fine with it except it seemed to make some things needlessly complicated, but throw a girl at me and suddenly everything is easy. You're the clever one, Moony. Tell me."
"Well, first of all, she didn't throw a girl at you," says Remus. "She threw you at a girl."
"And a good time was had by all," says Sirius. "Impulse or Imperius?"
"A good time?" says Remus, and try as he might, he can't keep the incredulity out of his voice.
Sirius shrugs helplessly. "I don't know," he says. "It didn't feel like a bad time should feel."
"And do you usually have a good time around Slytherin girls?" asks Remus, feeling very, very out of his depth.
"How would I know?" says Sirius. "They usually call me blood traitor and I usually call them fat. That tends to nip romance in the bud, you know."
"That's very… mature, Sirius," says Remus. He feels he doesn't have the words for this, for any of this. Though his social worker mum probably does.
"That good time you had," he probes. "Was it still good when you found out?"
Sirius snorts. "I'm sure you love your mum, Moony," he says, "but would you want to find her hiding behind the curtains for your first kiss?"
"Hell no," says Remus quietly, as he watches Sirius's hand flies to his mouth, trying to choke back weird and unknown emotions he shouldn't even know. Sirius is not a crier, has never been. It's when he goes completely silent in the face of whatever darkness has him in its grip that they know it's all too much.
Pond, Remus thinks. Definitely a pond. Or a puddle. I'm not picky when it comes to drowning his mum. Because this isn't even his mum hiding between the curtains. This is his mum inviting herself along for the ride with a bold hand on the steering wheel for something that should have been special, and amazing, and private, oh god.
He looks at Sirius now, this confused miserable teen who kissed him on the mouth last night for reasons unknown, maybe for the sake of hanging on to scraps of an identity that lies crushed under the force of somebody else's will, maybe because he genuinely likes him that way. But now is not the moment to find that out, Remus tells himself. If they force this now, it could be both, or neither, but he's sure it will not last.
"Sirius," he says finally, if only because he has to say something. "It's the Imperius. People tend to discount it because it's not painful, and it doesn't kill you, but it's dark and it's damaging. It doesn't make you do things. It makes you want to do things, and maybe you wanted them anyway, but you can't know. And now even the things you want aren't yours anymore. And that makes it unforgivable."
"But how –"
"Time," says Remus gently.
Sirius looks as if he wants to protest, and god damn it, Remus wants him to. Already he has to channel that iron-strong, wolf-taming part of him, in order not to do the one easiest thing there is: To convince Sirius that one of his spurs of the moment is actually a really brilliant idea.
Sirius doesn't look at him, and his face is locked in that blank Noble and Most Ancient House of Black expression as he shifts his attention to the gramophone, which has stopped playing. He carefully turns the record before putting the needle on.
"But that's everything," says Sirius finally. "I mean it. Everything is just my family. I've fought them since I was tall enough to see through the windows of Grimmauld Place. Everything I have ever done, everything of importance, I did to spite them." He shakes his head. "Bloody hell, I'm pretty sure I only like pumpkin juice because my mother thinks it's too ordinary to have at the dinner table. And you know what? She's right. The stuff is revolting."
He stares at his oil-stained hands. "What now? Who do I fight?" he says. "What do I do now?"
He turns to Remus, and there is that utterly lost expression again. But this time Sirius doesn't kiss him. This time he is just lost.
"You find out where your family hides," says Remus. "And you're doing a bloody eviction. And then you stand back and think – really think – about where you want your life going. Not where you're running from. Where you're headed."
The smile on Sirius's face is unexpected. "Please," he says. "What sixteen-year-old does that?"
"I do," says Remus simply. "All the time."
The sun is dipping low now, shadows flowing together. They've already swallowed up the garden, where the apple trees are. Only the sky overhead is still glowing. Sirius reaches for his leather jacket that is draped carelessly over the motorbike's handlebar, extricates a depleted pack of Silk Cuts and a lighter from the pocket.
He sits, cross-legged, shakes out a cigarette, puts it into his mouth and ignites, taking a deep drag. With the first exhale, some of the tension in his body evaporates. He offers Remus one, too, and Remus accepts, leaning forward so Sirius can light it for him.
"Then let me get to the bottom of this," says Sirius.
"Of what?" asks Remus, inhaling the hot scratchy smoke. For him, smoking is certainly a less religious experience.
"You," says Sirius, and his brilliant eyes regard him through the smoke. "You and the wolf, I mean. You said you know what it's like, with the wolf an all. Sharing your head. Well?"
"I meant the situations were, in some aspects, comparable," says Remus.
"In the aspects that count, I hope," says Sirius, "or what's the point? So you want things -"
He has got to be doing this on purpose, thinks Remus, smoking like James Dean in Rebel without a cause, talking about wanting –
"And the wolf wants things, too, I suppose," continues Sirius, "so, how do you know? How do you tell?"
"The wolf just wants," says Remus, trying to look anywhere else. "It wants everything, all the time, and it wants it right now. Attention. A fight. Or, well, you know what." He tries very hard not to blush. "But he's easily distracted. Me, I just watch out for things that will stay."
"Like… a good book?" says Sirius. "A comfy cardigan that you patch three times?"
"Exactly," says Remus. It doesn't seem to be the sort of thing Sirius should understand right away, so it is a relief when he does.
"How does chocolate factor into this?" says Sirius.
"You can always buy more chocolate," says Remus defensively.
Sirius snorts. "Hypocrite," he says, but he says it fondly.
Remus lets him think it through, because all this seems very far removed from the way Sirius usually sees the world.
"Aren't you missing out on a whole lot of things?" says Sirius after a while. "I mean… the whole teenage boy experience. That's basically it. Attention. Fights. You-know-what."
He grins in a way that is probably outlawed in the American Bible Belt.
"If James's soul-destroying infatuation with Lily Evans and your ongoing hate affair with Severus Snape are exemplary of the teenage boy experience, maybe I don't want a part of it," says Remus.
"Oh, you are such a prefect," says Sirius, and Remus instantly regrets bringing up Snape at all, because Snape reliably brings out all the terrible traits in his friends. Ironically, it is a more long-lasting relationship than any of the four have ever known.
"It's not a hate affair," says Sirius. "Have you seen him staring at your mum at King's Cross? Probably trying to see if she's really chronically ill. You're the one who should be having a hate affair. He's all up in your business and you're being bloody polite to him -"
"I just don't believe riling him up will make him back off," says Remus mildly.
"He needs to learn you're untouchable," says Sirius.
"I'd prefer if he didn't learn anything."
Sirius laughs. "Trust me, the Slytherins will be unbearable after all this. Ignoring them doesn't work. You'd know if you partook in the whole teenage boy experience."
"As I said –"
"I know," says Sirius. "You want no part of it." He sighs, lets the smoke curl out of his mouth. "Is the point of all this that you're as broken as I am?"
Remus is surprised and a little offended. "That's not really a word I use for people."
"You think," says Sirius very deliberately, "you think, that just because something happens in the moment, that it doesn't mean anything."
"I never said –"
"You think it was just one of my wild ideas," says Sirius. "That I thought, hey, guess what will tick off my mum in the worst possible way? If just lean into the next available guy and kiss him on the mouth. That'll show her to put an Imperius on me."
"And did that thought not go through your head?" asks Remus carefully.
"Of course it did, Moony," says Sirius, a bit desperate now, "I think a million different things every day, but that's beside the point. The point is, do you think I've gone and ruined it?"
"Ruined what?" says Remus.
"You tell me," says Sirius. "What did I ruin? Was there ever anything? I've been agonising about this for months, but I never thought to just ask. Do you even want this? With me?"
It's a bit much to take in at once, thinks Remus, so he holds on to the first fact that grabs his attention. "Months?"
Sirius wrings his beautiful hands. "Could you focus on the question, please?" he says, and Remus does, and then his breath catches in his throat, and then he realises, somewhat belatedly, that his throat is full of toxic smoke, and he's coughing.
"You complete and utter prefect," says Sirius.
Maybe it's just to wipe that amused look off Sirius's face, but Remus takes a deep breath and says, "Yes."
It definitely works. "What?" says Sirius.
"Yes," says Remus again. "I want this. With you. Not with any demons you might bring."
Sirius is not immediately rejoicing, he notes. Instead, he narrows his eyes. "Oh, you have plenty of –"
"But they're not part of this," says Remus. "Seriously. I mean it. Take your time. Find out if I'm pumpkin juice or, or -"
"Firewhiskey?" suggests Sirius.
Remus winces. "That's not much better."
"All right," says Sirius.
"I'll take my time," says Sirius. "I'll think it through." He stubs out the dog-end in the grass, then takes care to bury it in the dog-roses so Mrs Potter won't find it. "Bear in mind I'm not used to doing that, so I'll probably botch it, but, well," he adds. "At least you'll get a good laugh out of it." He grins. "Or a good snog. Hope springs eternal."
"Oh god," says Remus. "Should I be scared?"
"Course not," says Sirius. "Everything's going to be peachy. Just you wait."
Neither of them is saying anything for a while. It is getting dark now, and Sirius lies back to stare at the sky, at the beautiful star-flecked indigo above. He still has the spanner in his hand, and Remus recognises the movements. Swish and flick, swish and flick. The first spell they ever learned. Small and precise and powerful.
"I reckon you'll want it back," says Remus, reaching for Sirius's wand that he still has in his pocket.
Sirius hesitates, then shakes his head. "Think you should keep it a little while longer," he says carefully.
"You just want us to tie you to the bed again tonight, do you," says Remus, and Sirius laughs.
"How did you even figure it out?" says Remus. "How did you know Regulus stole your wand? It was a very sneaky operation, after all."
"I threw all these ugly figurines, didn't I?" says Sirius. "I know when my wand is in my hands, even if it is temporarily Transfigured to look like a hag's dildo." He absent-mindedly turns the spanner in his hands again.
"Why didn't you say anything?" says Remus.
Sirius doesn't say anything for a long while. Just when Remus considers repeating the question, he says, softly, "I know what it did."
"What it let her do," says Sirius. "To me."
"Yes," says Remus. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay," says Sirius. "I'm sure I'll forgive it soon."
Suddenly, inconceivably, he smiles. "I never said, didn't I? Thank you. Thanks for looking out for me. Even against, you know, your own best interests."
"Always," breathes Remus, but that is lie, there is a bit of that lie in everything he has said: Because in the grand scheme of things, the answer is closer to never. Because he'll fold before the time comes. Because Sirius will always have demons. So will Remus.
"We all did," he says. "We all looked out for you. James, Peter, me. And," he pauses, "Regulus, I suppose."
Sirius is silent at that, but his eyes flicker, as they sometimes to, to a familiar constellation in the sky, or at least, to where it would be now. This time of summer, Leo is already descending when sun sets.
"Regulus is a good boy," says Remus softly. "You know he is."
"First day of summer, I –" Sirius stops himself. He stares down that piece of sky, as if braving himself to say something.
"I can keep a secret," Remus reminds him. "It's basically my best thing."
Sirius closes his eyes against the sky, against Leo, against the star hiding behind the sunset. "I found a Death Eater mask in his room," he says.
There's nothing Remus can say to that except, "Well, shit."
"With a note from Bella," says Sirius. "Try it on for size. This is the sort of people I left him alone with, Moony."
"God," says Remus softly. He can't really think of anything better to say, so he takes Sirius's hand, motor oil be damned. He entwines their fingers and holds it tightly, and Sirius lets him, his eyes back on the sky. Looking for something.
"Remember when I was Sorted?" says Sirius, out of the blue.
Remus is not sure what prompted this jump in the conversation, but he's willing to go along with it. They'll probably get back to Regulus, anyway.
"I don't think anyone who was there will ever forget," he says. "It was pure agony."
Sirius gives him a tiny, almost embarrassed, smile. "So, not just me, then?"
"Seriously, you never asked yourself that?" Remus can't help but lightly punch his friend. "I was stuck, middle of the queue, worried sick that the Hat would just give up on me. That it would Sort me into the Forbidden Forest or something," he says. "And there's that posh brat right at the beginning of the alphabet taking twenty-three minutes to decide on a house. I hated you a lot that day."
"You and everyone else," says Sirius. "I was heaving quite the heated argument with the Hat. Couldn't persuade, blackmail, or otherwise convince it to put me into Slytherin."
"Odd," says Remus. "You shouldn't have had any trouble, you were a right little Pureblood wanker in those days. I'm sure you put up one hell of an argument."
"Course I did," says Sirius. "I wasn't suicidal."
Eleven year old Remus, of course, hadn't understood the politics of the situation, but even he had picked up on the chilly silence in the Great Hall after the Hat had finally decided to put the heir of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black into "Gryffindor", and Sirius Black had slammed it down on the stool and shouted "Fine!", stalked past a table full of shell-shocked Slytherins to a table full of equally shell-shocked Gryffindors, sat down, and crossed his arms.
"Is it true, then?" says Remus. "That you camped out in front of Dumbledore's office, trying to get him to re-Sort you?"
Sirius gives him a look. "Well, for some reason, my new dorm-mates didn't make me feel immediately welcome –"
"You expected the house-elves to dress you and called everyone the M-word!" exclaims Remus.
"- so yeah, I went to Dumbledore," says Sirius. "He was being his usual pompous self, though, said the Hat's decision was a magically binding thingy and he couldn't take it back. And to tell my mother to stop writing him letters."
"Like that was going to happen."
"So I accepted my lot," says Sirius. "Made friends with you tossers. And then I went home for Christmas, expecting the whole thing to have blown over by then, but as it turned out, they'd just been stewing since the Sorting. Not my best Christmas."
Sirius pauses, but Remus can see there's a story that wants out, so he just gives him an encouraging look.
"Day after I came back from the Christmas holidays, I went back to see Dumbledore," says Sirius finally. "I asked him whether I could talk to the Sorting Hat again, and he let me."
"Still trying to change its mind?" asks Remus. He is surprised. He hasn't thought of the Sorting Hat at something that even exists between Sortings, or something that you could talk to more than once in your lifetime, or something that would ever admit to a mistake.
"Not the point," says Sirius. "I didn't want to get into bloody Slytherin anymore, I just – I wanted to tell the Hat. That damn Sorting Hat affects so many lives, and it takes so little time, and I wanted to tell it, because I thought it needed to know."
"Tell it what?"
"The fallout," says Sirius very, very softly. "It said it saw bravery in me. I told it what bravery looks like when it lies sobbing on the floor of Grimmauld Place. I told it that if it put my little brother anywhere but Slytherin the next year, I would personally come and set it on fire."
Remus looks at the oil-stained hand he's holding, and for lack of anything helpful to say, he squeezes it – it's over, he thinks, twelve-year-old Sirius is no more and he was braver than any twelve-year-old should have needed to be.
"What did the Hat say?"
"That I was not going to be twelve forever, but I would be a Gryffindor for the rest of my life."
It's probably extraordinarily insightful, coming from a hat, but Remus remembers twelve-year-old Sirius and knows he wouldn't have appreciated the subtlety.
"It also pointed out that it was, you know, a hat, and a thousand years at that," adds Sirius, "and that it would sort Regulus anywhere it thought fit, so I used Incendio but I sort of forgot that Dumbledore was right there."
"You set his priceless artefact on fire," says Remus flatly.
"We had surprisingly little to say to each other afterwards," says Sirius with a shrug. His fingers move slowly in in Remus's hand, tracing their edges, groves, the pulse point.
"And then the Hat went and sorted Regulus into Slytherin anyway," says Remus.
Remus remembers that day, too. Mostly because of Sirius, who'd had a look of intense concentration on his face, attempting some sort of weird, wandless Legilimency on the Sorting Hat. After four agonising minutes, when the Hat had finally declared him a Slytherin, Regulus hadn't looked for any of his numerous family members in Slytherin. Instead he'd found the eyes of Sirius, who'd breathed a sigh of relief and gave his brother the thumbs-up under the table.
"That fucking Hat," says Sirius. "Why'd it listen to me?"
"It's not the Hat's fault," says Remus. "It's not your fault, either," he points out.
"I should have chosen a path he could follow," says Sirius. "Instead I told him he wasn't brave enough to follow me. I told him to stay where it's safe." He looks up. "Now I'm safe, and he's with people who'll eat his soul."
There is a long, silent moment, and the record spins to an end. Sirius still has Remus's hand in his own, and now he takes it, presses it against his lips, a distracted gesture of affection.
"I'm not okay," Sirius says finally.
Remus squeezes his hand again. "I know."
Sirius sits up, looks at their entwined hands for a moment as if he doesn't understand how they ever got there, and then looks at Remus. "I'm sorry, Moony," he says, gently reclaiming his hand. "I just need to not think for a little while."
Next thing Remus knows, Sirius flips off reality by transforming into a huge shaggy black dog, and that is still new enough to be pretty damn cool. The dog stares Remus down with intense, bright eyes, and gives a small whine.
Remus reaches around in the grass until his fingers feel the remnants of the Jammie Dodger Sirius has thrown at him. The dog swallows it in two bites, then licks Remus's fingers and wags his tail.
"Hello, Padfoot," says Remus. "Long time no see."
It's not true, of course it's not true, Remus realises. It's just that Sirius sometimes gets important things wrong when he's sad, or agitated, or thinking too many things at once. He misses things in the clutter. But here is the truth: Not everything Sirius has done his life has been because of his parents.
The proof is right in front of him. Padfoot exists because of him. Because of Remus. Sometimes, Remus still can't quite grasp how much he is loved, or understand why.
Padfoot whines for attention, lays his head on Remus's knee, and out of reflex, Remus scratches his ears. "We've missed something, haven't we," he says to Padfoot, who huffs and ignores him.
He's sure of it, they've all missed something in the clutter of the last three days. It's just that Sirius thinks too much at once, and Remus rarely gets a chance to think, but now he has one.
So he thinks. He sorts through the clutter.
Hand curling up in Padfoot's dense fur, Remus thinks of the bad things. Learning about the Unforgivable – a dark and terrible thing on its own, and yet, only the final shove down the rabbit hole. Learning that the adults around them are just as overwhelmed as they are. Learning that, growing up, they may not become more rational, more capable, more compassionate – instead they, too, may get tangled up in this Socratian paradox. Worse, they may accept it as just the way things are.
And he thinks of the good things, the new things: Sirius is free, and he will never walk the gloomy halls of Grimmauld Place again. And he has the best damn friends a boy could wish for. And - Remus is careful with this one, because this thing is so new, and so small, and so vulnerable, and already it has his heart in such a tight grip – Sirius likes him. Likes Remus. Like that. If this small thing survives the post-Imperius rearrangement of Sirius's mind, that is.
And he thinks of the things in limbo, the things they can't quite know, because here is where it's hidden, that thing they've missed. He's still not seeing it, he just hopes.
And he hopes, and he hopes: That Snape will back off this year. That Regulus will realise he is the good person they all suspect him to be, and that he can't be a Death Eater at the same time. That Sirius will be able look inside himself and find peace. That the war that is coming will spare them, Sirius and James and Peter.
Because they're untouchable.