Regulus, December 1979
Regulus is fucked.
He’s never known pain as crazy as this. This must be the apex, then, the summit, the peak, and he doesn’t know what to do with it, except fall off the edge. It’s not the wretched potion, or even the evil thing hidden beneath it. No, regret has been with him all the way uphill, for months before he first dipped a goblet beneath the potion’s shimmering surface. All around him, faces of people he’s terrorised, tortured, lured to their death, families he’s torn apart, ideals he’s betrayed, and the only thing, literally the only thing that’s kept him upright and breathing and trudging on uphill is the knowledge that it is all going to be over today, that he’ll find the peace he deserves, in the arms of the living dead, beneath the surface of a nameless lake.
Just a few more minutes, he tells himself, a negligible effort, a handful of goblets, and then he can rest. He counts out the heartbeats he has left, counts them down, and remembers, remembers, why now? He remembers his last Quidditch match against Gryffindor, Sirius whacks a bludger at him, all’s fair in Quidditch, and he catches the Snitch by the tips of his fingers, at the end of the arm that is already marked.
And now Kreacher catches him, too, and this is not how it’s supposed to go, Kreacher’s not supposed to save him, he’s supposed to let him sleep.
But he never did, there’d always been lessons in the morning, elocution and Occlumency and piano, and he’s back in Grimmauld Place, and the locket tumbles to the ground, chimes like a death bell.
Like he’s late for a lesson.
He’s on the floor, sobbing like a child, like he first did six months ago, delicate nineteenth century Persian, a curse woven into each thread, Marlene McKinnon bleeding out on a nursery floor, and Kreacher comes, with water, with potions, with bandages, covers the horrible mess of his arm.
“I can’t go back,” he says, he pleads, the mark is crawling, twisting under his skin, lashing out, like a wounded animal, it is eating him alive, insides first, and Kreacher tucks him into bed like the child he is.
Sirius, January 1981
It’s all lies, lies, lies, all the time, lies and half-truths and what-ifs, but in the end, it’s all lies. Sirius is in the middle of what used to be his kitchen, and he’s lying to James, again, lying by telling the truth, he’s quite proud of this one, “I’m worried about Moony,” he says, and he waits and waits for James to suggest they go through Remus’s things and maybe they’ll finally have proof, one way or another, he can’t breathe with all the lies.
But James is a fucking romantic, and he trusts everyone he shouldn’t, even when they’re gone all the time, and don’t come back when they promised, and lie about where they’ve been.
And that’s why Sirius makes tea, of all the fucking things to do, makes tea with Remus’s Muggle kettle and Remus’s Muggle PG Tips in Remus’s chipped Muggle mugs and of course the half-pint of milk still left in Remus’s Muggle fridge has gone off ages ago so they drink it black, and James is worried too, but in a wholesome way.
Sirius just wants to hit things.
Then, just then, because bad timing is the curse of his life, because of course they still haven’t gone through any of Remus’s things unless the meagre contents of his tea cupboard count, there’s the sound of a key in the door, and he and James are in the hall in two steps, mugs of tea in one hand, wands in the other. Extremely intimidating.
“What the hell are you doing here?” says Sirius.
Remus looks like shit. He’s in his rattiest Muggle things, his tatty old man’s deerskin overcoat – which Sirius secretly thinks is in incredibly bad taste -, the washed-out jumper with the hood drawn up, jeans with plenty of holes in them, dirt-caked boots. And when was the last time Sirius has seen him surprised? Not today, that’s for sure.
“I live here, you twat,” Remus points out, regarding the pair of them with some sort of tired curiosity as his backpack hits the floor. “Unlike you, I might add.”
“That’s a shit security question, by the way, Padfoot,” says James, then he catches up on the tension. He elbows his best friend. “You moved out? You never said!”
“I do that,” says Sirius defensively. “Sometimes.”
“Oh god,” says James, who has long ago sworn not to let himself be dragged into any of this, whatever this is, lies and more lies stuck together with spellotape and not much hope. “Moony. Last thing we talked about.”
“You said you’d asked Sirius to be godfather,” says Remus, stiffly taking off his coat and letting it fall to the floor next to his backpack. “What did I reply?”
“Sure that’s the question you want me to answer?” says James with a side glance at Sirius.
“Just get this over with, I need a bath,” says Remus. He really does, thinks Sirius, who doesn’t even need Padfoot to figure that one out.
Remus kicks the boots off his feet. His socks are ancient and they, too, are riddled with holes. When he pulls back his hood, his dark-blond hair is half sticking up, half plastered to his head. It’s not exactly the most prefect-y of looks.
“Fine,” says James, in a tone that says Dig your own grave. “You said if that’s my choice of godfather, you hoped Harry has inherited Lily’s brains.”
“What?” splutters Sirius.
Remus grins. “Hello, James.”
“How have you been?” says James at the same time as Sirius says, “What took you so long?”
“The two of you will have to coordinate a little,” says Remus, as he brushes past Sirius into the tiny bathroom, where he gives the scary electric Muggle boiler contraption a few impatient waves with his wand. The thing hums to life, and releases lukewarm water into the tub in a thin stream.
“We thought you’d be back a week ago,” says James, who pretends he hasn’t seen this blatant display of Improper Use of Magic. Before the moon, is what Sirius wants to add, but really, it’s implied. It always is.
“Got held up,” Remus says shortly. He waves his wand a few more times, and the water starts steaming.
“What happened?” says James.
Remus looks up to him, and now he looks positively impatient. “An ambush happened, that’s what.”
“Who –“ begins Sirius at the same time as James says, “Are you okay?”
“I haven’t had a bath in a month,” says Remus. “Feel free to stick around if you’re bored, but right now I have an appointment with a hectolitre of water. If you’re cold, I’m sure Sirius remembers how to work the heating.”
He marches past them to grab a towel and a set of marginally cleaner clothes from his bedroom, then adds, “I see you’ve helped yourselves to tea. If you’re hungry, you’ll find takeaway menus in the cutlery drawer.”
He shuts the bathroom door in their faces.
“Is it just me or does he seem angry?” says James.
Sirius shrugs. Angry is not the word he would use. Not when furious, withdrawn, and deflective all present themselves.
They retreat into the kitchen, and James opens the cutlery drawer, flipping idly through Remus’s collection of takeaway menus. “Curry or Chinese, what do you think?” he says.
“I think that was a joke,” says Sirius absent-mindedly.
“Have you looked at him? He needs fattening up,” says James, who, since the birth of his son, seems to have turned into his own mother. She, too, would be able to count someone’s ribs through three layers of clothes. “And he’s hurt,” he adds.
“Curry,” says Sirius, who has looked at Remus and only thought traitor, but who also has extensive knowledge of his takeaway preferences, and doesn’t James know this, right here, is the very conflict that is ripping him apart?
James seems to think this is something he needs to get out of his system, as if this was a misdirected crush, or a prank gone wrong. It’s ridiculous. It’s their lives that are on the line.
“Look at me, you prat,” says James sharply, and Sirius snaps out of his thoughts. “I’m not having any part of this. I’m getting curry, and if you think you’ll feel better after looking through his things, now is probably your last chance for a while.”
Menu in hand, James walks back to the hall, haphazardly puts his shoes on, takes his coat and woolly hat from the pile of the floor because of course Moony doesn’t have normal grown-up things such as coat racks. Sirius follows him into the hall because this… this thing wants out, and yet it doesn’t, and he doesn’t even know anymore.
“James,” he whispers.
“Don’t you think he’s gone a bit… feral?”
“Do you blame him?” says James. “He’s not exactly warmly welcomed in our society.”
“Then why should he be fighting for us?”
James looks at him and he couldn’t roll his eyes any harder if he tried. “You’re a bloody idiot, Black.”
For the second time in as many minutes, a door is slammed in Sirius’s face, and he resists the temptation to punch it.
All right, he thinks. The irritating thing is, James is right. If Sirius wants to have a snoop around, he should be doing it now, while James is out and Remus is busy scrubbing layers and layers of grime and who-knows-what off his skin.
Only he can’t seem to get started.
The examiners at the Auror Office had been right, Sirius realises. He would have made a shit Auror, because what kind of Auror would freeze to the spot at the chance of finally finding out, for sure, if his best friend of nine years and ex-whatever they were is a traitor?
First things first. He gets on his knees, thankful for the sound of rushing water from the bathroom that drowns out whatever rustling he can’t avoid. Remus’s backpack, thrown carelessly in a corner of the hall, doesn’t contain any surprises. In fact, it doesn’t contain much of anything. Change of clothes, as ratty as the set he’s worn, some Muggle money, maps, empty paper and a biro, half a bag of trail mix, an empty pack of cigarettes.
And a toothbrush, he’s relieved to find.
No book, though. The Remus he’s known wouldn’t even have gone on a half-hour train ride without a book, let alone a month-long trip through the wilderness.
There are books a-plenty in his bedroom, which Sirius visits next. In fact, the bedroom is almost exactly like he remembers it. Books are stacked in haphazard piles, some lying open on their face, others with dog-ears and whatever Remus could find as bookmarks – rejected job applications, half-finished bars of cheap Muggle chocolate, socks – their margins covered in notes. This is someone who likes reading more than he likes owning pristine books.
But there’s something oddly past about it all. The books are all pushed to the wall and covered in a thin layer of dust. There’s a box that says Hogwarts on it, unopened in over two years, and the terrible thing is that Sirius understands, somewhere in his black neglected heart, because what good is the finest education you could get in Great Britain to someone like Remus, who has given up on applying to jobs in the magical world at some point around the second summer.
There’s Remus’s terrible, back-destroying mattress on the floor, and some of the pettier parts of Sirius want to know if there have been others who’d complained about the mattress in the six weeks since he moved out of here. But there’s no sign of strange boxers or bras, no wonder, Remus hasn’t even been here for most of that time, and Sirius tells himself to focus.
What is he even looking for? A neat ring binder, like the ones Remus had at Hogwarts, full of notes in his sharp handwriting, entitled Death Eater Diary?
It’s cosy, too, with candles on every bit of flat surface, mostly because Remus is regularly late on the electricity bill. Nothing is neat, but there’s so little of everything, and he doesn’t keep letters, or photos, or old notes, or newspapers. No sign, either, that Sirius has ever lived here, and somewhere deep inside Sirius knows that Remus is miles too clever to leave anything incriminating lying around in a flat that Sirius still has the key to. Remus will have it all in his head.
Or maybe it’s all in Sirius’s head. That’s what James thinks, anyway.
Sirius knows what Dark Magic feels like, and there isn’t a trace of it anywhere in the flat, and for a moment Sirius gives in, allows that glimpse of hope that has kept telling him, it’s not him, it’s not him.
But he’s done the math. It can’t be anyone else.
The sound of rushing water stops, and Sirius thinks for fuck’s sake, be a Gryffindor and ask. He probably wouldn’t have dared if he hadn’t seen Remus’s wand abandoned on top the fuse box in the hall, clear sign that the idiot still trusts him.
Remus freezes in the middle of pulling his shirt over his head when Sirius opens the bathroom door.
“For fuck’s sake, Sirius,” he says. “You fucking moved out, why do I still have to deal with you in my own bloody bathroom?”
“Where have you been?”
Remus takes a deep, measured breath, usually a sign that he is very deliberately not ripping someone’s throat out.
“That’s not how it works,” he says. “You know the rules.” But he seems a bit tired of the rules himself – or maybe just tired in general - and struggles free of his shirt completely before turning to the sink. He braces himself against the basin momentarily before turning to a cabinet full of bottles, passing over the pain potion in favour of Dittany and Essence of Murtlap.
Sirius has seen him in various shades of hurt before, of course, but not like this. Not tired, stooped, like his whole life his wearing him out. His skin is torn and bloody from the back of his neck to past his shoulder blade, and while Sirius can’t see clearly in the dim bathroom light, it’s nowhere near the wolf could easily reach with either teeth or claws. It probably hurts like fuck. His entire left side is bruised black and purple, and deep scratches run from his hipbones down to somewhere underneath his jeans.
Sirius has exactly two thoughts: One, that he knows exactly why Remus is ignoring the pain potion - because it makes him slow and sleepy, and he won’t want to be slow and sleepy with Sirius in the flat. And two, that James is right.
Remus does need fattening up.
“Good fight?” Sirius asks.
Remus snorts. “You should see the other guy.”
He soaks a clean flannel with Dittany and carefully dabs at his torn shoulder and back, twisting painfully to reach the edges. His right arm – and of course Sirius notices – is free of the Dark Mark, but does that mean anything? Fenrir Greyback isn’t marked (Sirius knows because unfortunately the fucker disrobes at the drop of a hat, and at six feet four and an estimated two hundred and forty pounds of muscle, Sirius has to admit he is intimidating).
“Need help with that?”
Remus gives him a rather eloquent look in response. It says, quite clearly, that nothing is further from his mind than letting Sirius anywhere near his battered body, whether to help him, or to read his secrets from the new scars he’s wearing, or to do whatever else Sirius can think of.
“Do you mind? I’m rather in the middle of something,” Remus says, glancing meaningfully at the half-full, steaming bathtub, when Sirius is still standing in the bathroom door like an idiot.
“Hurry up,” he says. “James is getting curry.”
Sirius closes the bathroom door before Remus can reply. Werewolves, he thinks. He should have bloody known.
James is arranging boxes of rice and three types of curry and pakora on the rickety kitchen table when Remus finally exits the bathroom, drying his hair vigorously with a towel. He’s wearing a different one of his endless selection of hoodies, jeans, and a scarf around his neck. Sirius also notices the wand is back on his person.
There’s a vaguely soapy, medicinal smell around Remus. It is orders of magnitude better than the previous smell.
“Oh, god,” he says. “Food. I swear, James, if you weren’t so bloody married, I would absolutely proposition you right now.” He gratefully receives his heaped bowl of rice and curry.
It is super fucking awkward, at least for Sirius, because James is throwing him a look that says are these the ways of a traitor? And of course James couldn’t bloody identify a traitor if he danced on his grave, as long as the traitor kisses his arse enough.
It takes Remus an estimated three minutes to get halfway through his curry, and Sirius can’t help but think it would be so easy to just slip him some Veritaserum, just stir it into a bowl of whatever food they can find, the man will eat it and then they’ll finally get to the bottom of this, but the Death Eaters are controlling the Moondew supply, and the Order’s stocks of Veritaserum are wiped clean.
James finally takes the initiative and asks.
“When you say you got held up before the moon –“ he begins.
“Told you,” says Remus between spoonfuls. “Ambush.”
“Some,” says Remus.
“Did they know where to find you?”
“That’s the impression I got,” says Remus, and Sirius wants to scream, because it’s all evasion and half-truths and frustrating scraps of information again.
“How did you get away?” Sirius asks.
Remus takes a moment before he replies, but it still comes out sharp. “Does it fucking look like I got away?”
The obvious answer, of course, is no, thinks Sirius, because frankly, it looks like Remus was let go. “You’re here now,” he says.
“True,” says Remus. “Should probably tell them.” He reaches for a spiral notebook and a biro on the window sill. He scrawls a few words, and as his signature, a circle - standing in the for full moon. Remus crumples up the note and taps it with his wand, and the paper ball floats in the air before igniting. Then he returns to his curry.
“What was that? What did you write?” says Sirius.
Remus makes a tiny frustrated noise. “Just a note for Headquarter that I made it back safe.”
“You didn’t report to Headquarter yet?” says James. It’s very, very unusual, because they have a code, and the code says they report to Headquarter after a mission. They don’t go home and have a bath and Indian takeaway first.
“No,” says Remus quietly.
“Remus,” says James, in one of his wonderful imitations of being a responsible adult, “the Order relies on the information you bring home.”
There’s a moment of silence and then Remus slams his bowl on the table.
“And where was the fucking Order when I fucking sent for help?” he says. “Hanging around a tree somewhere? Getting tipsy on eggnog? Crying over your terrible life choices? Merry fucking Christmas, you comfortable wankers.”
“You sent for help?” says James, looking about as dumbfounded as Sirius feels, because Remus’s assumptions about their Christmas are not entirely inaccurate. The last week has been nothing if not extremely quiet, which is probably one of the reasons Sirius’s brain has once again gone into overdrive about this whole traitor thing.
“Twice,” says Remus. “Well, thanks for nothing. I’ll give my report when I see fit.” He rises abruptly, walks over to the window and opens it to the damp cold of early January. There, he settles down in the window frame and lights up a cigarette. Angrily.
He totally has that from Sirius.
“Sirius?” says James.
“Yeah.” Sirius is surprised to find he’s still dumbfounded. There’s been maybe three times in his life that he’s seen Remus this angry, and to be quite fair, it’s been his fault every time.
Not this time, though. He’s fairly sure of that.
“Who was on communications duty for Headquarter this week?”
Sirius closes his eyes. “Caradoc,” he says. “Caradoc and Peter.” Neither of whom are anywhere close to the top of his list. “I suppose,” he adds carefully, “the messages must have gone lost on the way.”
If there have been any in the first place, he doesn’t add.
“Twice,” says Remus from the window.
“Let’s maybe just check the records anyway,” says James. Sirius nods.
There is, of course, an uncomfortable silence after that, but they’re not really given the chance to get used to it, because the Muggle phone rings, once, twice.
Remus groans. “Sirius, get the phone.”
“It’s your flat,” Sirius reminds him.
Remus flips him off, then extinguishes his cigarette in a long-dead flowerpot and picks up the phone.
“Of course it is – I live here, for fuck’s sake,” says Remus into the phone. Then he listens for a moment. “He’s here,” he adds. “James is with him.”
A long moment of quiet listening, and then, “What? I thought he was dead!” Remus looks at Sirius, and the expression on his face is absolutely unreadable.
“We’ll be there in a second,” says Remus. “Hang in there.” As he hangs up, James and Sirius are already on their feet.
“Was that Lily?” says James at the same time as Sirius says, “Who’s not dead?”
Remus, of course, addresses James. “The first thing she wants you to know,” he says, “is that she has the situation entirely under control.”
“And the second?”
“There’s a Death Eater in your kitchen.”
“What?” says James, at the same time as Sirius says, “Who?”
“Oh, Padfoot.” Remus smiles without much humour. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Come on, we can Apparate from the fire escape.”
As soon as he’s turned his back, Sirius gives James a very, very imploring look, paired with a meaningful side glance at Remus, which is supposed to very clearly convey that he’s not sure Remus should be coming with them, but of course bloody James ignores him and side-Apparates them both to the Potters’ secret address in Cornwall, where Lily is leaning against the kitchen counter, two wands in one hand and telephone still in the other.
Sitting opposite her at the kitchen table is Regulus Black.
To be continued.