Actions

Work Header

Leave the Children Behind

Work Text:

When the fevered haze finally begins to clear from Remus Lupin’s mind, the first thing he notices is a hollow, empty ache thrumming somewhere deep inside him, pitted cold like the bellow of a conch shell. The pain, as it always does, comes soon after.

Dumbledore is sitting at his kitchen table with his hat still on and the sun has just burst through the midmorning fog of November 3, 1981. It feels like he’s been huddled there for days, or maybe it’s only been a few moments, though Remus knows he’s been in and out, sometimes not even announcing himself, not needing any of the old precautions anymore, not needing the crackle-and-hiss of protective cloaking spells they’ve woven into the walls and the doorframes for the sake of their own lives. He wishes he had never bothered at all and suddenly feels the shame of it, that he is even left to wish a thing like that, that he could still be here at all: the last man standing, the last lost little moth hovering over the Headmaster’s warmth in his rickety oak chair. Dumbledore’s voice sounds like some sort of underwater transmission coming from the end of the table, the upturned lilt of a question hanging like a cold spot between them in the room, and Remus supposes he answers something which he forgets as soon as it spills from his mouth. It doesn’t matter.

For more than a year now, he has been little more than a barometer for the state of affairs in the darker corners of the Order’s influence, and even today, his duty has not changed, expectations stacked up like thunder on Dumbledore’s tongue. There are questions, and Remus answers; there are sympathies, and silences, and a thousand threadbare, intolerable kindnesses, and he bites down every single one like admonition, the wafer and the wine. He doesn’t even remember the last time he ate.

“Harry,” he hears himself saying, his voice raw and red as dead leaves crushed under great russet paws. “Please. Professor—please, just let me—”

“We’ve discussed this, Remus,” Dumbledore says, his face unreadably stern, and Remus hates him in that moment, chafes at the cornflower twinkle in his eyes, the gentle rattle and murmur of his sparse words. “It’s best this way. It’s the only way. You know this.”

“I don’t bloody well know anything,” he snaps, rough rasp of stone-on-stone, hurting with it. “Sir.”

“Then I ask you simply to accept it, Mr. Lupin,” is what Dumbledore says, but what Remus hears is, No, Remus, you cannot see him, you will never again see this child who is the only thing you have left, who you have loved with every part of you that ever mattered, who you would nurture and feed and grow with all the blood there is inside you, this boy you would have died for, would still die for, would fight the world for with all the strength that is left in weathered palms. You will be lucky if he ever knows your name.

“I love him,” mutters Remus. “I love Harry, Professor. I can—I can. Please.”

“Mr. Lupin.” No, Remus. Too bad, Remus. Sit up straight and don’t argue, Remus.

His fingers are cold. Dumbledore is asking if he’s eaten today, same as Andromeda Tonks did when she visited early this morning, and the morning before, her hostile blue eyes all hollowed-out, a mouth that barely works; she doesn’t bring her daughter anymore. It’s just as well. “Yes, sir.”

“I know this is—indescribable, for you.” He looks over his glasses, all soft pity, his eyes bluer than anything, and Remus is fifteen years old again, perched taut as tightrope in Dumbledore’s office, explaining why Sirius Black and James Potter have a perfectly legitimate reason for being in the prefects’ bathroom with all that sandpaper, Sirius smiling at him over his shoulder, wicked and beautiful. He feels his whole head swim. “But you are strong, Remus, and you know this. There is nothing you cannot endure.”

He wants to scream. He wants Dumbledore out of his house, wants to make demands, wants to rip the plaster from the flaking walls, wants to throw everything in his kitchen at the Headmaster until he knows the agony of strength the way Remus does, the weight of it caught always in his throat, its secret cyclical ritual, the curse of resilience that rips his skin apart and bursts his mouth with blood. Strength is monstrous, fork-tongued, a lesson he learned while he was toddling around in the garden and barely out of nappies, unasked for and undeserved. It’s what kept him standing and moved his limbs through the house when Sirius walked out for the last time. Three days ago, when the decaying walls all came crumbling down around him like old parchment, strength is what sat Remus on the couch and pressed his shaking hands to his face until the sun bit the dead November sky.

He suspects he doesn’t have to tell Dumbledore any of this, but he wants to. Wants him to know what it’s like, knowing that the best and brightest thing in the world has cast you out of your only home, bled you dry of all the love you ever had, put his arms around you late at night while he dreamed of splitting your lungs wide open and stepping over your friends’ corpses to watch his own godson die. He wants to tell Dumbledore to feel the weight of Sirius’ name around his neck heavier than penance, go on, Headmaster, stretch your hands out across the empty bed, remember the edges of his teeth at dusk once a month as you rebirth yourself under the hot white acid-flood of the moon, and don’t forget, don’t ever forget how much he never loved you. Do this, again and again and again, as many times as your brittle life will allow. Then, Remus thinks, then you can speak to me of strength.

Instead, he says, “Let me see him. Let me.”

“Remus—”

“Let me. He couldn’t have, I need to see him. I want to know.”

“You want to know what, Remus?” There’s a darkness under Dumbledore’s eyes Remus can’t remember ever seeing before, as if he hasn’t slept for days; it turns harsh when he looks down his nose at Remus across the table, sympathetic, almost, but rigid as stone, immovable. “You want to know that he betrayed you and everything you loved? That he was never who you thought he was? You want confirmation of what you already know? My dear boy, what good would come of seeing him there? Sirius Black was in no state to answer questions when I last saw him, and I would not see you cause yourself further grief, especially not now. It is done, Remus. It does no good to dwell on the clouds now that the storm has passed and we must do what we can with the silver lining. I am sorry,” he says, and it sinks like lead.

Remus feels himself nod reflexively, slips his empty hands between his knees. He hates the disappointment in Dumbledore’s eyes even now, hates himself for putting it there. “Yes,” he mutters, “of course.”

After Dumbledore leaves, Remus puts the kettle away and stands in the middle of the kitchen clutching a cup of tea long gone cold, waiting for the minutes to tick away. Half an hour or maybe more he passes like this, exhausted in his bones like when the moon is filling out full at the edges, just standing there while the afternoon fades to dust because it’s so much easier that way, easier if he doesn’t have to think about anything or do anything until Dumbledore comes around tomorrow and tells him again to be strong, that he cannot see Harry, that there will be no trial, to ask if he needs any help with the funeral arrangements or did he eat today and does he want to see someone, does he need to talk to anyone. It’s easier if he rehearses each of his answers, each of his questions, wraps his hands around a cold teacup to give them something to hold until his mouth turns to cotton and the meaning runs out of everything.

Azkaban. Azkaban is such a jagged word. Heavy with consonants, set upon the frigid sea and choked out by rocks. There is Sirius, locked away with every good thing Remus thought he ever was, there are his eyes, and the softness of his mouth, and the joy of Remus’ name on his tongue, the way it became a charm when he tasted his own two syllables in Sirius’ mouth. There is the death of everything Remus has loved. He tries to think of Sirius in a filthy prison smock, shrieking to himself, mad as a rabid dog; he knows most of what there is to know about the prison, how it turns memories into rusty, serrated teeth to rend skin to shreds, how it turns men and women inside out, how they either explode and rip themselves raw at the seams or fade away, go dark, sift into the stone.

And there is Sirius, who always had to be touching someone, something. Sirius, who Remus would have died for, would have maybe killed for, who Remus loved, and loves and loves and loves.

The thought is monstrous and irrevocable. He still loves Sirius Black. James and Lily are lying in a morgue, there is nothing left of Peter to bury, Harry is gone, his walls shake in the autumn wind while he stands in the middle of the kitchen, toes numb and hands empty, and he loves Sirius Black. Sirius is going to die in Azkaban and Remus loves him. Sirius took everything he ever had, never meant the things he said, never loved him when his arms were around his waist or when they were filling each other up with their secrets late at night, and that doesn’t fucking matter because Remus loved him even when Sirius was shutting the door in his face.

He remembers that Sirius’ birthday is in two weeks. That he wouldn’t have bought him anything anyway, not now. It’s the first one they will have spent apart since the day they met.

The bathroom tile hurts his bony knees as he kneels over the toilet and waits to be sick, his guts twisting and his empty stomach clenching up, and he feels it rise, churning, and then die around the trapped-rabbit thrum of his heart in his throat. It’s only rational, he thinks, resting his forehead against the freezing porcelain. You can’t just stop loving someone. You can’t turn it off like it’s some sort of machine. That’s not the way it works.

Someday, he knows. Someday, he will learn to breathe again. It will stop howling inside his head. And then he’s going to burn it all to the ground. Every single letter and every single photo and every single delicate, spiderwebbed memory sticking to his bones. Someday.

Look well, Remus thinks, because this is what strength looks like: his eyes closed and alone, breathing, just breathing, waiting for his turn to stop feeling anything at all.

He only ever burns one photograph.

New Year’s Eve, 1981, and he is staring back at himself in black-and-white, Sirius’ arm thrown around him and his own fingers reaching up to tangle them together. James took it almost five years ago, just before the start of the second term of their seventh year, though Remus can’t remember the click of the camera; he remembers Sirius’ shoulder, the rumble-brush of his voice reverberating in his own skin, the cotton-soft smell of his shirt. He whispers unintelligible things in Remus’ ear, and Remus, in the photograph, laughs, grins, kisses him just below the ear in the place that would become his favorite. But no matter how long he watches, no matter how long he’s kept that photo in the cheap maple frame on the mantel, he has never once let go of Sirius’ hand, as if they are two chain links that cannot be uncoupled.

He means to throw more into the fire, but he keeps vigil over only this one, transfixed, long after the last of the ashes have gone cold in the grate; when he closes his eyes, he can still see the howling red of the flames, growing and growing.

It would be a lie to say that it ever gets easier. The years stack up and blur, one muted season turning to another and then another in the listless shift towards tomorrow and tomorrow; mostly, it just gets different.

Work comes and goes, usually taking him far from his tiny, crooked house in Kent for a few months at a time. He takes up some research in Ireland, even makes it through two full moons with no questions asked before he’s told to quit, but he doesn’t mind much; grindylows are interesting enough, but a few extra parting Galleons to keep him in bread and canned soup and a new pair of shoes for the winter are much nicer, all things considered.

In India, he learns better healing spells than Hogwarts ever taught him and also learns that he loves palak paneer; in Albania, he stays in a room roughly the size of a crackerbox above an old Squib woman’s house while he looks into a string of attacks that turn up a roving boggart. He tills her garden for her one afternoon, and she smiles at him, hides it behind her dry, wrinkled hand, and Remus wants to tell her he knows what that feels like, having something bright and alive inside you that you don’t want the world to see for fear of the way it will shatter the moment someone tries to take it from you. He listens to her translate all her books about vegetables for him in halting, staccato English; when he left, she kissed him on both cheeks with her thin, shrunken lips, pressed pumpkin seeds into his hand and told him to write. She always smelled like baby powder and the cool, red earth caking her fingernails. Remus smiled at her, and didn’t look back after he shut the door.

At twenty-eight, in Amsterdam, there’s a woman, Lotte. He finds himself looking over her shoulder at a newspaper in a language he can’t read one morning, trying to puzzle out something about Wolfsbane; when she turns around to swear at him, he sees that they have similar scars, similar holes. Her teeth are sharper than barbs.

He spends most of the year with her in a cold, leaky third-floor flat that smells vaguely of mold, right above a street vendor who paints tiny wooden trinkets for tourists every morning. Remus picks up odd bits of language from him while she’s out at this week’s job and he’s studying hexes for gnome infestations, clipped, breakable words with their languid vowels he parrots for her when she gets home. Goedenavond. Ik vind je heel mooi. Hoe gaat het? She shakes her head and always answers in English.

In the spring, he starts keeping tiny plants in coffee cans on the windowsill, pink petunias and impatiens stretching for the muzzy yellow sun; Lotte tells him not to bother trying, that everything dies in the wintertime, anyway, but she smiles around her cigarette when she does, that wild, razor-sharp overbite flashing over her bottom lip, and Remus looks away.

They change together when the moon comes full, in a run-down barn outside the city where they wake up bleeding on each other in the mornings, and they don’t talk about it. She wears makeup over her scars sometimes, and then sometimes she doesn’t because she says she would rather let it show, sneering whenever someone stares at the livid pale line that crosses her nose and eye, as if she could ever hurt them the way they hurt her. She is full of fury at the wide open world in a way Remus has never known anyone else to be; he’s never sure quite what to make of her, or whether that’s a good thing.

One night early in September, when he’s sure she’s at least half-asleep, Remus tells her his secret. She turns her dark head towards his on her pillow when he’s finished, awake and staring in the dark, hard as glass. “He probably does not even remember you. Brains all turn to mush around Dementors. I’ve seen.”

“I just—I told you I was fucking a murderer, and that’s all you got out of it?” He laughs roughly and tries to mean it, because thinking too much about Sirius Black, that beautiful boy with his knifeblade mind drooling in a black prison smock, not knowing or caring about the color of Remus’ hair or Darjeeling in the cupboard or all the things he thought they grew between them, is something that keeps him awake more often than he admits even to himself, even on the deadest nights. He shouldn’t care. He shouldn’t want. The truth of it, he knows, is far worse than anything he could ever imagine for Sirius.

“You think he should have his soul sucked out, do you? You say this was all lies, all fake. Maybe, maybe not. But you think he deserves all of—all of himself taken away? Every piece of his memory? Do you think anyone deserves it? Why not just kill him? It would be kinder. Better.” She sits up, but when Remus tries to answer, she just talks over him the way she sometimes does, her body curling in on itself as she speaks in those acerbic, cut-glass tones. “You know there are people who think we should be locked up in places like that. Exactly like that, for being bitten. For existing. You think we should be? You think anyone deserves to be, no matter what they do?”

Remus looks at her, her forearm slotted across her knee and still red from fresh wounds three days ago, the piecemeal skin stretched across her bones even more chewed-up than Remus’. She’s never tried to heal it, no part of her. “No,” he says, “I don’t. I don’t think anyone belongs there.”

She lies back against the pillows again, the lumpy old bed creaking underneath her spine as she watches him, reaching for a cigarette. “You still love him,” she says, and Remus starts.

“I loved someone who never really existed,” he snaps. “He never loved me. I don’t—I don’t love that.”

“Idiot man,” she murmurs, stealing the cigarette from his mouth and taking a long drag, her thumbnail scraping his bottom lip, “you wouldn’t have brought it up if you didn’t. Your Dumbledore tell you that, too? You can’t see him, you can’t love him, you can’t even think of him? Mr. Headmaster let you go to school, call the fucking Pope. They let me go to school here and I don’t owe the Headmistress my soul and all my fingers and toes. Do you know where you’re going? Can you make decisions for yourself, Remus Lupin?”

Her fingers find his hand and stay there after she’s given his cigarette back; she doesn’t speak again until he’s finished, but even then, he can’t look at her, not with the pity and the anger unfurling in her mouth, her eyes. “You care too much about people who don’t care about you. You get nothing out of it.”

“Life’s not about what you deserve,” he says. The draft in the bedroom blows the hair on the back of his neck the wrong way. “I don’t look at the world and—and ask for what I know I can’t have. I don’t know, I’d just rather plant something. I don’t want to hurt. And I don’t want to hurt anything else.”

“People like me take and bite and steal because we have to,” says Lotte, clipped, blunt. She isn’t touching him anymore; he knows why. “Because the world takes everything from us. And then we have to take whatever we can, and when we do, they hate us for it. Don’t want us to even have their trash. They’d rather shove us into prison so they don’t have to look at us. Or kill us. And then they hate us for trying to help ourselves.”

“I know,” says Remus, “and I don’t blame them for taking anything they can get, I don’t. But it’s just. That’s not what I do. I’m sorry,” he adds, knowing how her lips have twisted off to the side, how her nose will crinkle at the apology.

But she only says, “I know,” quietly, almost kindly, and gives him one last unfathomable, inky-eyed look before she presses up against his back to go to sleep, tired and sore with the world and, Remus thinks, disappointed. And maybe she should be.

In the morning, he wakes to an empty bed and an empty flat, Lotte gone already for work, her shoes and jacket missing from their spots by the door; he thinks of making tea but goes back to bed instead, half-dreaming of dim London mornings in the orange dawn, remembering the bed he shared with Sirius there, arms and legs and hands tangled up under the quilt his mother gave them. He would push, and Sirius would push back, and they would wake up slow as sunrise while Remus wondered at the closeness of it, how he could touch another human being without analyzing his movements or training himself to closeness, stillness, how his heart knew what it wanted, knew how to move without orchestrating his hands into strange, oversized gestures. It was Sirius and it was Remus. He was never afraid of it, never afraid of them.

On a rainy January morning, he realized he had grown around Sirius like myrtle ivy. Their feet touched under the blanket. Their legs twined together, Sirius’ over his own. Sirius’ nose was in his hair, his palm was curled over his hip; they made a pair of parentheses on the bed, not a scratch of empty space in between, as if they had just grown that way, one around the other until they planted themselves there in the bed, the grey morning sinking in around them and the insignificant world shut out.

My God, are you just going to stare? Sirius’ voice rumbled through his head, moved his blood. Remus Isabella Lupin, did you learn nothing from seventh year? Keep doing that and I’ll get the wrong idea and then we’re both naked on the front lawn without a Knut between us and all our togs in the lake.

I learned plenty, Remus murmured, reaching out like the tide breaking on the rocks, fluent in this wordless verse of warm skin on his warm skin and bright eyes on his bright eyes. I learned that you’re trouble, Mr. Black, and you’re going to ruin my reputation. And—oh—stop that, haha—I’m—oh my God—I’m trying to tell you something, you degenerate.

Then get on with it, Sirius growled, and he moved with Remus when he pulled him up on top of him, bent his head when Remus slid his hands over the swell of his arms and curled them around his shoulders, because right now my faith in you and your prefectly disapproval is hanging by a thread flimsier than my mum’s thong.

Remus didn’t speak, because they didn’t need to speak for the way they cultivated their silences into something almost tangible, solid as their own skin and the air they breathed. He never needed to say what their hands and their lips already did.

It is so much easier, so much better to believe Sirius really loved him, once, that there was a part of him he kept for Remus and Remus alone and no one else ever touched it, no one but him. That his heart was not a liar, and for a while, neither was Sirius.

It is so much easier to believe, because then he won’t have wasted so many, many years and so many, many dreams in love with the ghost of a man who was never really there at all.

He turns away from the window and lets his shoulders shake for a while, lets his eyes sting. He doesn’t remember the last time he cried. It was probably Sirius’ fault then, too.

At nearly thirty-one, cocooned in Kent in the lonely hilltop house his mother left him, Dumbledore writes him in the stifling heat of a midsummer drought. There is much still to be done, Remus, and you have much yet to offer. We would all be stronger—indeed, far more so—for having you here with us; our students would be wiser and better for it, and I daresay you would be, too. He never answers.

The same tawny owl comes the next summer, held high on August-scorched winds. He feeds it a runner bean from his tiny garden that it doesn’t eat and writes a proper refusal before he shuts himself away for the night, pulling on his pyjamas, avoiding his face in the bathroom mirror the way he’s done for years and years now. He doesn’t know the last time he touched someone else.

The third time, the letter arrives with his heart in shreds, and Remus packs his trunk.

Thirty-three and he feels like a boy again, but Hogwarts must always have that effect on people, its ageless stone, the silver shift of magic threaded through the shadows just the same as they always were. Sometimes, it makes him feel so young, so whole again, that he catches himself half-expecting a cagey whisper or a pair of hands pulling him into the passages only they know, two dark heads bent towards his in the hallways; he wonders if this is why people come back here, casting out their nets for the smallest stray glint of childhood in these unchanging corridors, or if maybe it’s just him.

Occasionally one of the portraits will ask him how he’s been, how’s the mapmaking career, or they’ll wonder about those other boys he used to knock about with, the rakish one with the glasses or the short blond one who could fit whole cakes under his robes or that other one, the tall one, the clever aristocratic one who always had his hands all over you, finally make an honest man of you, did he? Remus doesn’t have the stomach to tell them. Remus, still, hardly has the stomach for it himself.

It’s as if time flows in on itself. He’ll catch sight of the corner table in the library that was always his favorite and there James will be, blowing in his ear and grinning like the sun, all thoughts of his Charms essay forgotten at the voice rumbling velvet-low against Remus’ old parchment. Peter still sits at the Gryffindor table at breakfast, stealing Remus’ toast and jam, flashing him a strawberry grin over his juice, pink-cheeked, honey-warm; he finds Lily on the lakeshore, in the foxtails and the winter-sweet tang of oranges at Christmas, her hair made into a shock of flame in the autumn light as she synchronizes her sighs to James’ latest missteps in new and exciting Teenage Mating Rituals.

Sirius will not be chased away, no matter how he tries; Remus sees him in the Shrieking Shack, in the brim of the waxing moon, at the mouth of every secret passage and hidden room they mapped while the castle slept and the thrill of their own feet on the stairs heated the blood at their temples to recklessness. He is spilled ink, torn parchment, every hope and every fear Remus has ever had. He will not be contained.

When Sirius breaks in the first time, Remus spends half the night kneeling over the toilet with his guts in a knot and his heart in his mouth until he hunches over at the foot of his bed, wondering about the tunnels no one else knows to wonder about, wondering about huge black dogs. Wondering about a boy who took a few hexes for James Potter, and for Peter Pettigrew, and for him, who hated the old pureblood rancor so much he would have burned it out of himself if he could, a man who held him tight after every full moon as if it could keep them both in one piece, who learned to feed a baby and change nappies and actually like it. He wonders.

James and Lily used to leave Harry with them so often at first, before all the moves and the hush of hiding; Remus remembers feeding him, reading to him, watching Sirius heft him up on his shoulder and catch him in the air. He never let him fall.

Oh—what’s that, Harry? Remus said, watching Harry wiggle in his arms, drowsy five-month-old bundle closing his baby-fist on his chest. He didn’t like standing up and carrying him around, not the way Sirius did; he was so small, so fragile, bird-boned. He was never as sure of his arms as Sirius. We’ve got a tosser in the room, do we?

His name is Remus Lupin and he’s got carrot mush in his hair. Wow. Have some self-respect, man, said Sirius, watching him with a quiet softness Remus could never remember seeing in his eyes before.

What?

Sirius blinked and shrugged, looked off to the side; shy, almost, or maybe just uncertain. Nothing, am I not supposed to look at you? I like your face. That’s all.

Oh, said Remus, and then, well, in that case, I like yours, too. But you already knew that.

That’s not the only part of me you like, Sirius murmured, low and heavy. He kissed Remus’ forehead, and then Harry’s, flicked the orange carrot mush out of his hair. You’ve got drool on your shirt, by the way. I leave you two alone for ten minutes and look what happens.

And to think, you didn’t even put it there this time. Sirius smacked the back of his head with an open palm and Harry fussed, squirming in his arms. They made such fantastically underachieving weekend parents, Remus thought, both of them. Oh my God—Harry’s saying something—Sirius, Sirius, he’s talking!

Are you sure you’re just not being a—wait, really?

Yes, he—oh, what a dear. He says you should make me a cup of tea and maybe a biscuit, Pads. Sharpish.

I hate you, said Sirius, standing, smiling. You know James is going to get killed one of these days flying into the room like an injured wildebeest every time you do that, and then you’ll have his death all over your conscience.

Harry says you should come sit with us, said Remus, and Sirius did.

He always did. Remus could never pin down exactly when he stopped. By the time he could have asked, it was too late.

He takes to walking the grounds at night after the shock of another break-in, knowing full well how it looks, knowing the way Snape’s eyes follow him every time they pass each other in the halls like cold gusts of wind. If Snape knew even half what Remus does, he would have a stay in Azkaban waiting for him at the end of all his excuses. He tries to hate Snape for it like James would have, like Sirius would have, but mostly, he just hates himself.

It’s about trust, he tells himself, it’s about disappointing people, but the truth of it is that it’s never been about disappointing Albus Dumbledore as much as it’s been about wanting to wrap it all up in his arthritic bones and keep it for himself, not wanting anyone to take this from him, too. Because it’s his, all of it, the wet dog, the twitching rat he kept in his pockets, the stag prodding his shoulder and making ridiculous snuffling sounds, all of them deep in the September flush of fifth year and drunk on their own daring, their own adrenaline. He doesn’t want Dumbledore to have it; he doesn’t want Sirius to rip the dark, private sweetness of it to bloody tatters. It is selfish and disgusting and irresponsible and if he says it enough maybe he’ll start to care.

“Are you all right, Professor?”

He startles, and tries not to startle again when he sees Harry standing beside him in the corridor, blinking up at him with those wide eyes. Remus’ smile comes easy. “I’m fine, Harry. Just a little green around the gills. Nothing dinner or a bit of chocolate won’t fix.”

“I have some,” Harry says. “Chocolate, I mean. If you want some.”

“Not obtained through dishonest methods entirely illegal and off-limits to you?”

“Never, Professor,” Harry mutters, pink bubbling across his cheeks even for the quirk of his mouth. Remus smiles wider at him. He can’t help it; the boy is so much like James and not that he’s in a constant state of amazement and amusement whenever he thinks about it. “Do you think you’ll feel well enough tomorrow for—?”

“Of course I will,” says Remus, automatically. The full moon is the day after tomorrow and he doesn’t care. “Same time. I’ll even bring out the ones with the caramel, you’ve certainly made enough progress for those.”

“Do I get my weight in chocolate if I ever manage it?” Harry pushes his glasses up his nose with his middle finger, and it’s so much like James but not that it makes Remus ache somewhere behind his ribs, in that place he keeps for the things he loves.

“Well, when you do—because you will, Harry, it’s only a matter of practice and time at this point—when you do, we’ll just have to see, won’t we,” he answers, watching the sunburst of Harry’s grin break across his face, wild-haired thirteen-year-old miracle who will never know how much Remus loves him. He would buy Harry half of Honeydukes if he could afford it, would teach Harry anything he asked, anything he wanted, would learn it all backwards if he had to. Harry’s sneakers, he notices, have a hole in them where the heel pokes through; they look old and worn and at least two sizes too big for him, and Remus spares a short moment of resentment—not for the first time—for Dumbledore, for Sirius Black, for everyone and everything. He could have done that much. He could at least have done that much. “Maybe I’ll just have to take you to Hogsmeade with me at the end of term. If it’s just once for the sake of business—and by business I mean good chocolate—I don’t expect the Headmaster will have a problem with it.”

“Thanks, Professor,” says Harry, brightening and sounding, for once, as young as he is. Remus wants so much just to hug him quick, only once, wrap him up and keep him safe for a thin sliver of a moment and feel that he’s still there and breathing and happy and alive the way he thinks only thirteen-year-olds can be that he almost does it, there, in the corridor; his shoulders are so small.

He tries not to let it feel like loss every time he has to watch Harry walk away, but that’s exactly what happens when you have things and then have them taken away from you. Nothing ever fits in that empty space just the way you want, but you find a way to survive because you have to. You keep on living. You grow another reason to get out of bed in the mornings.

He sits with the Map when he can’t sleep, watching inky feet flicker up and down their restless paths like bird wings until they settle into their nests for the night; he’d always wanted to do Hogsmeade just like this, too, and he can almost feel his hands cramping at the thought as he looks at the second floor west corridor—his work, mostly, with James. It still snags in his mind when he watches it unfurl and bloom for him, like blood on snow. How young they were; how in love they were with each other, all of them.

The smooth curls of an uppercase S still draw his eye, same as they used to; the crisp glottal ck click whispered at the back of his own tongue, and he tastes a name no one has called him by for twelve years, mythical and lonely as a distant, happy memory.

This is the true price of loving someone. They whisper to you across a cold, sunless sea. Their absence festers like famine; your blood refuses to forget its history. Spend twelve or thirteen years trying to scrub them from your heart and they flood you all over in a sudden torrent, breaking every dam you’ve built. They curl up inside and become a part of you; they become your morning coffee, they become maddening habits you’ll never break. In his bedroom, in the light of the waxing moon, Remus whispers, “Mischief managed,” and sighs, dimmed and exhausted as the breath of the soft, timeworn parchment in his hands.

On a warm blue evening with the June-yellow yolk of the moon ready to crack in the night sky, the world stirs, and Remus’ heart, his monstrous, frantic heart stirs with it.

He never dreamed it like this, never hoped, but maybe he should have known that at the end of twelve years, Sirius Black’s eyes would still be brighter than Remus thought anything alive could ever, ever be.

As it is, the strangeness of it weighs down on him as soon as he’s back in Kent, heavy as the humid summer air hanging around the house all day and night. He digs through the trunk full of old notes and photos in the attic, relics at best now, writes long letters he rips apart and never sends; the ones that do make it to Sirius rarely receive a reply.

The joy is a fragile, wilting thing that gives way to fear, and then regret, guilt, shame, anger. Harry stares up at him in old photos, wrapped up in Sirius’ arms and shaking his toy dinosaur at Remus while James hovers and Lily smiles crookedly at their feet, and now—the cold teeth of the funeral, tattered, too-big shoes, torn-up letters, choppy writing more than a decade out of practice—Remus sits up at night and tries to decide what’s worse: that they really didn’t know each other after all, or that they did, and they let this happen anyway.

I’m going to be gone a while, Sirius told him, arms folded across his chest in front of the window. It was a cool evening, even for the middle of October, and Remus pulled the sheets up to his waist to hold himself against it, watching Sirius. He had gone to the window three times.

I thought so, Remus answered, biting his cheek, tasting blood, copper-sour. If you wanted one last shag you could’ve gotten it from anyone. You know.

Sirius turned to him quick, naked at the window, fury swelling, deflating in his lungs. They hadn’t done this since June, since before everyone started treating him like a child eavesdropping behind every door, before they stopped touching each other entirely; they’d hardly even seen each other since July, when Sirius just stopped coming home and Remus planted himself like a weed in his parents’ old house because he couldn’t stay in the flat, not with the knowledge of what used to fill up all the empty corners. Who knows, Remus thought, maybe he already has gotten it from someone else.

I don’t know who puts this shit in your head, Sirius had snapped, his sloe eyes flashing like violence.

If Sirius was old enough now for adult secrets and adult betrayals, Remus reasoned he was old enough too for the bite of adult anger he could never take before. Not the first time you’ve put something inside me that didn’t belong there, said Remus, and he regretted it immediately for the way Sirius’ face faltered and fell as if he’d been slapped, soft, blurred at the eyes.

And then Sirius sat down at the end of the bed. Pulled on his jeans, slipped into the metal clang-clang-clang of his belt, those stupid twenty-pound boots Remus pretended to hate but mostly loved. He wanted to cry and scream himself hoarse and throw Sirius against the wall fuck him and whisper all his secrets until he understood. He stared out the window instead, connected his own fingerprints where they were smeared on the glass.

When he left, Sirius lingered in the doorway like he wanted Remus to say something, or maybe he wanted to say something, meet his eyes, go to him the way he used to, back when Sirius was east and west and it was easier than anything could be, when he knew where he was going at all.

I love you, said Sirius, whether in admonishment or in petition, Remus couldn’t say. I don’t fucking—God, you’re a fucking arsehole. I love you, and fuck you for trying to take that away from me.

Just go, said Remus, drawing his knees up to his chest, wanting nothing more than to hold him until morning when the door slammed through the hollow bones of the house.

It’s what he wants it now, on the sparse nights Sirius spends with him, curled up on the pilled-up grey couch rather than Remus’ old spare bed, wants it when Sirius jolts him awake from the sitting room, gasping, choking, sucking down air like he’s drowning, and he did, didn’t he? Sirius Black drowned in the North Sea while Remus locked himself up and let it happen.

There is a part of him, still raw and ravaged with the years, that wants to say, This is your fault. You idiot, you fucking idiot, you should have known better. You should have known me better.

But then it turns on him, so much louder, screaming down his own throat. Look what you did. Look what you did to him, look what you did to all of them, you did this, you stupid fuck, you did this and you don’t get to forget.

Sirius is always gone by the time Remus finally gets up and goes to the sitting room to—well, he doesn’t know what, because he never gets the chance. To hold him, maybe, if he would let him. To tell him it’s all right, they’ll be all right, it’ll get better from here. But he’s not sure he even believes in better himself anymore, and by the third or fourth time it happens, Remus stops trying to wrap his mouth around a twelve-year apology and waits for the click of the kitchen door in the middle of the night, like always.

Through a long, shared history that stretches back most of their lives, Remus has learned as much about Sirius as he used to think he could ever know. One of those things—one of the things that surprised him at first—is that he’s not unlike Remus himself, in that he’s a man with a lot of shame: his family’s greatest disappointment even at eleven, the pureblood bile that followed him for years and years, the guilt of being one of them, his own capacity for cruelty; and now, the pain of being left to regret every bad decision he’s made, every day he draws breath that James and Lily don’t. None of it ever used to be directed at his body the way it is now, under the weak halo of fluorescent light in Remus’ kitchen.

The first thing Remus really learns about Sirius, new, strange, thirty-three-year-old Sirius, ragged-boned and silent, is the shape of his shoulders at the kitchen table. Broad and strong still, but too thin, poking out rigid-sharp beneath his borrowed shirt as he stares down at his lap where his hands are clasped together; his hair is soft in Remus’ hands, damp from his shower, and he wants to tell Sirius to look up a bit, half so he can be sure he’s cutting it evenly and half so he can see his eyes, see whether the person he fell in love with—the person he has never stopped loving—is still under that veil of hair, hiding, waiting to be coaxed out. Remus is terrified that he won’t be, so he does the best he can with Sirius’ slouched head and watches the pieces drop to the floor in long, uneven feathers, black on black.

He never used to be so still when Remus did this at Hogwarts or in their flat, in constant motion even with scissors at the base of his skull, but now he doubts Sirius would care if he shaved it all off and dyed his scalp an unattractive puce. From the back of his neck, Remus can count every vertebra in his spine, can feel the tension strung through every weary muscle; it’s almost surreal, how small, how dense he looks in this wobbly chair. Sirius Black, diminished.

Remus knows what it’s like, the fear of his own body, the way the bony lines of his hips and wrists determine him so completely, treacherous, unfamiliar territory he cannot sink down into the way he once could. Anyone else might look at Sirius and think he mourns the loss of his own beauty, and they would be wrong. He’s still handsome and may grow more so if he could only eat and sleep; what he hates is the slash of a mouth that doesn’t work, the limbs he can’t remember how to move, like a colt on new legs. He’s lost the footing of himself, and Remus doesn’t know how to help him, or if he even can.

“Here,” says Remus, startled slightly at the sound of his own voice in the quiet, startled too at Sirius’ flinch. It makes him want to throw the scissors and lock himself in his bedroom for the rest of the night, or maybe until next year. “Don’t want you looking like you’ve been at it with any bears,” he says, brushing Sirius’ hair out of his face, careful to avoid his eyes the way Sirius avoids his.

If this was before, Remus would have bent down to kiss him, forehead, nose, lips, and if this was before, he would have tasted like skin and soap and blackberry jam, sooty-sweet cigarettes. He would have tasted like a living thing, like breathing feels, the in-and-out pull of rhythmic certainty.

And it isn’t even that they don’t speak. There are words, sometimes. But mostly there are none.

Sirius makes a small sound in his throat that might be a laugh or might be derision or might be irritation, too. It might be a thousand things. Once, Remus would have known.

“Leave it,” he says when Sirius moves for the first time in twenty minutes, making to sweep the hair into a pile. It’s like watching stone crack and crumble. “I’ll get it. Give it to the birds.”

Sirius blinks and shuffles back in his chair, running his fingers through his short, clipped hair. He looks younger without it, his stone-shoulders stacked against the warped wood, incomprehensible as a human Tower of Babel whose runes rusted and bled out with the brutal salt of the sea, a dead language long gone and long unspoken that Remus cannot read. A flash of his hand, a swell of orange-warm magic, and he sweeps the hair up and crosses the kitchen to the door, then to the ancient oak on the hill, where he breathes in the burnt green heat of late summer and lets the thick strands of Sirius’ hair flit slowly between his fingers, soft as chalk, beautiful. The lake below is dark from up here, a blot of ink full up with a flat-edged moon and a muted veil of stars, the last of the heather popping out in pastels along the tall grass; when he was young, he used to run up and down the tiny lane that led from the back pasture down to the low, rocky shore just before the borders of the village while his mother shopped. Some summers, late in August, he used to swim in it with Sirius and James and Peter, getting sand between their toes, letting the sun dry them out on the way back home. Even when he closes his eyes, Remus can’t feel sixteen years old anymore.

When he opens the chipped yellow kitchen door again (he should fix it, he should, he will, just, one of these days), he finds Sirius in the same chair with his hands still folded around his mug, drawn as a hangman’s noose with his spine curved inward like a question mark. “It’s beautiful, tonight,” he says, thunderous to his own ears. He can feel Sirius’ eyes go to him, brighter and somehow more frightening without all the hair; Remus doesn’t meet them. “You should go see the lake. Probably one of the last warm evenings we’ll have till spring.”

Sirius says, “You always did that. Before.”

“Did what?” His voice vibrates a little in his mug, echoes. Did what, did what.

“Gave my hair to the birds,” says Sirius, craggy as two rocks rasping together, a splintered mouthful. “Before.”

“You remember that,” says Remus, finding his eyes across the table, and then looking away like it’s an accident. They are exactly the same color they were thirteen years ago, twenty years ago, sloe-slate like an iris after rain, and it steals the breath right out of Remus’ lungs. “I didn’t think—I mean. I didn’t know. That you’d remember that.”

“I remember most things.” Sirius stares into his cold tea, opening and closing one hand briefly, and everything in Remus suddenly yearns for him, for those hands. “It’s just—it feels wrong, sometimes. Still. Like it didn’t happen to me. It’s hard to remember that it’s mine at all. That it wasn’t a dream.”

“You remember most things.”

A nod; an inhale, an exhale.

“I’ve—I didn’t, you know, I didn’t throw everything out,” says Remus, trying not to hope too much that here, now, is when they finally get to start breathing again. “I still have most of our photos. Some—some other things, too. If you want. I can go get them out of the attic.”

“I’d rather not,” Sirius mutters, shaking his shorn head, never meeting his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

“Sirius—please, don’t be. Please,” he says, and tries hard to look like it’s all okay, like any of this is okay. “Are you hungry? I’d be happy to make you something.”

He shakes his head, says, “I’m leaving tonight.”

“Oh,” says Remus.

“Thank you. For everything.”

It might be funny if it all didn’t bite at the back of his throat so much. Thank you for letting me sit at your table. Thank you for feeding me scraps. Thank you for not making any sudden movements.

“Stay safe out there,” he says, watching Sirius stand move towards the door, too thin for his own skin in Remus’ white Oxford, the deceptively fragile wrists, the sunken darkness at his collarbone like the skeleton of a ship strangled in its own sails. There’s never been a time in his life when he didn’t know how to talk to Sirius, when he couldn’t at least pick out something to say, and it hurts, God, it hurts. “I’m always here,” he adds. It feels every bit as useless as it sounds. “Please don’t forget that.”

He feels the cool snap-shift of the late August air around him and knows Sirius has changed already, loping down the hill to anywhere that isn’t Remus. Their mismatched teacups clink together when he puts them in the sink, Sirius’ only half-touched, a faint smudge of fingerprints around the middle where he gripped it too hard, and it’s so strange, so strange to have fantasized for so long about what he might say if he ever saw Sirius again—innocent or not, alive or not—and to have nothing at all to say when it comes to it, to have every guilty dream he ever gorged himself on sitting in front of him and all his words run out, too afraid to even reach out and touch him for fear that he might shatter. Twelve years of grief and betrayal don’t just go away, but surely neither do all the things they built between them that Remus fought so foolishly hard to keep.

Remus wonders, for the first time in his life, if maybe he’s clinging to crumbling walls.

“I miss you,” he whispers to his empty kitchen, his empty hands, because that’s just about all that’s left to say. He’s had Sirius at his table four times now and he doesn’t think he’s ever missed him more than when he’s watched him from an arm’s length away, silent and cloistered in on himself, as if he’s unsure of his own existence. It was almost easier when he was in Azkaban, when the distance dulled the pain and he could still let Sirius be a happy memory, but that’s the trouble with remembering: you can never stop digging for that sliver of what you used to have in the wreckage of the present.

“I miss you,” he says, again. From his spot at the window, a nightbird calls, long and lonesome; the midnight hush shivers in his hair, softly, softly.

Sometimes, Remus feels like all he ever does is move through life in a continual state of adjustment. To pain, to loss, to longing, to waiting, to having, to noise, to silence, all of it over and over in slow, ceaseless succession, cyclically, miserably.

Which is to say that it doesn’t get easier now, either. It gets softer. Louder and quieter, all at once, brighter as things come back into focus again. It goes from a sickly pale empty-thing to a slim, solid half-thing. An in-between thing.

In September, when he gets the news about Harry and Sirius starts living in a cave eating rats rather than stay with him, Remus takes a shovel to the remnants of his garden and bludgeons every single late flower and root until his shoulders burn with the strain under the cloudless sky. He chafes at the unfairness of it, the cruelty, that the universe should give back what it took from him—what it took from all of them—and hang it over his head just out of his reach. It isn’t fair, it’s never been fair, but then, fair is not a word that could ever be bent and twisted to apply to Remus Lupin or Sirius Black or Harry Potter, fourteen years old with the weight of so much human life strapped across his shoulders.

When the chill of autumn charges headfirst into the white gusts of winter, the letters start coming with the snowfall, erratic and sparse; by New Year’s, the envelopes get thicker, the handwriting fills out and unfurls into a restless, elegant scrawl all the way down to the fabricated signature at the bottom of each sheet of parchment. The words get longer, heavier; their voices, on the rare occasion Sirius visits, thread together a little easier.

He starts writing to Harry at Sirius’ suggestion, polite How-are-yous and You-don’t-need-to-call-me-Professors and I-miss-you-too-Harrys that quickly blur into long-winded paragraphs full of James’ youthful indiscretions and promises to show Harry the kelpies in the lake when he comes to visit next summer, which he swears to himself he will keep. He swears he will do all the things he should have done when he was twenty-one years old. He swears he will keep Lotte and her admonition like medicine on his tongue to swallow down when he needs it, bitter as nightshade. He swears a lot of things.

The spring thaw brings more letters, more words; sometimes, when Sirius comes to him, they have entire conversations between them that sink late into the night, both of them avoiding sleep for different reasons: Sirius, for the nightmares clawing at his throat; Remus, for the empty house he knows he will wake up to.

It feels like they’ve been distilled down to their barest parts, the two of them. He doesn’t know how they fit together anymore; he doesn’t know if they still can.

Room for a stray? asks Sirius, the torn bit of parchment curling up in the June humidity next to the newspapers he’s long stopped reading, held down with a smooth pond stone, like a treasure.

Remus writes, I never could stay away from them, as you well know, and waits and waits.

He plucks his way through the days writing letters and editing passages for a new Transfiguration textbook, earning a few Galleons a week in between navigating the names, new and old, that will revive an Order long dead. Figg, Moody, Tonks, Shacklebolt, Fletcher, Weasley. A whole minefield with their fingers on so many delicate triggers.

June fans out into a burst of crisp yellow heat, and Remus spends most of the last days in his garden or beneath the oak in the evenings, watching the harsh blue of the summer sky fade to russet and then black ink as he watches for Sirius coming over the hill the way he has so many times before. Which is more than a little useless, because Remus smells him, always, before he sees him, would know him at a bomb site, at the very ends of the world—and that is exactly how it happens. It’s like a change in the weather, sudden and green: earthy wet bark, a silver thread of magic in the night air, and Remus knows he’s there, dry grass crinkling under his feet, whisper-soft. He has the door open before Sirius can even knock.

His hair is still short from the last time Remus cut it, falling across his forehead in jagged feathers; the bones in his chest stretch yellow-white under the skin like glass in concrete, and Remus can see that his hand is shaking slightly in the dark even though he’s smiling thinly. They’ve done this so many times now, doorways and thresholds, both of them so practiced at the art of walking away, but Sirius’ face swims oddly in front of him, eyes too bright, too young, and it feels like Remus is seeing him for the first time again and he doesn’t know what to say, both of them so new and raw with no words yet between them in this strange, nervous stalemate.

The first thing Remus did after stepping into the Great Hall fresh off the train at eleven was bump into Sirius Black’s shoulder so hard he stumbled and would have fallen had it not been for the hand that pulled him up by the elbow, the dark eyes blinking back at him, curious and oddly beautiful in the murky night.

Crowded in here, mate, Sirius said, shoulders rolled back and head held higher than anyone’s, eleven years old and every inch a young Dauphin. Which house d’you think you’re for?

I don’t know, Remus said. He’d been caught up in the beauty, the magic, that eleven-year-old belly-thrill that is all wild wonder and excitement even in fear. They’d both lost track of their new almost-friends from the train, the blond and the one with the glasses, tiny smudges in the crowd. I don’t suppose it matters. I mean. I’m just happy to be here.

Are you daft, Sirius had asked, lazy-sharp, only, it wasn’t a question. You’re supposed to be here. And it does matter, you know.

Where do you want to go? Remus asked instead.

My whole family’s been in Slytherin, said Sirius, shrugging. They’ll probably boil my entrails if I’m not.

That’s disgusting, said Remus, but he didn’t miss the way Sirius bit his thumbnail between his teeth. It’s just, y’know. A House.

Sirius snorted. I bet you’re in Hufflepuff, he said. I bet you do all the required reading.

I’ll get better grades than you.

See, but I won’t need to do the reading, Lupin. I’ve already beat you at your own game. He scuffed his wet shoes on the floor, smearing mud absolutely everywhere his feet could reach.

You’re going to lose us points on the first day.

Why do you care? I’m not going to be in your House, he said, sneering, that practiced, haughty veneer splashed over his features like cold water. The Sorting began; Sirius didn’t look at him again, not even when Remus tried to catch his eye one last time.

In Kent, in the narrow scope of Remus’ doorway, Sirius is looking at him as if he’s truly seeing him for the first time since that night in the Shrieking Shack a year ago, and Remus, so used to speaking for both of them, loses the fragments of whatever he was going to say and swallows them down so they don’t catch in his throat. This is the tenth time in a year Sirius has stood on his front step like this. This is the eighth time Remus has wanted nothing more than to grab him and hold on until everything makes sense again. This is the eighth time Remus has been too afraid to do it.

Except—no, that’s not right. Go back farther. It’s the twentieth time, or the fiftieth, or the ten thousandth. Lotte, out across the sea or wherever she is now, swallows the excuses right out of his mouth, pares them down to the core.

“I’ve come to trespass on your hospitality and your couch—hallo, by the way,” says Sirius, fluid and full, less like the scratchy rasp of smoke his voice had been before. “For as long as you’ll let me, I mean.”

It’s something Sirius might have said when they were nineteen or twenty; he’s learned to speak again, without Remus, and suddenly there is nothing heavier in his entire body than the heart beating in his chest.

“Remus,” says Sirius, as if he would fill their silences, now. “Are you—”

“You keep coming back.” His voice rushes out, bobs and weaves between them. “You always leave, and you just—you keep coming back. Stop it,” he gasps. “God, stop it.”

He steps out of the way, but Sirius doesn’t move toward him, doesn’t follow the way he used to, because it isn’t fourteen years ago and it’s never going to be fourteen years ago again; looking at them now, his scarred hands and Sirius’ wire-thin limbs, Remus can hardly believe that version of them ever existed, as if they were always like this, born already withered and ready for suffering. He can’t tell if he’s crying or hyperventilating or just turning melodramatic with age, taking great stabbing gasps of air reflexively, miserably; eventually, he takes Sirius by the wrist and tugs him the rest of the way inside, and slowly, slowly, he lifts his fingers to his face, right under his chin where he can feel Sirius’ heartbeat through the thin skin there, harder than Remus can ever remember it feeling, quickening, saying, Touch-me, touch-me, touch-me.

“Remus,” says Sirius, and then whispering, almost reverently, “I’m so sorry. I’m, just—I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

If Remus presses forward, he can rest his face against Sirius’ neck, right against the pulse; they don’t quite fit, Remus pushing towards him, Sirius unmoving as marble, but they’re not disjointed either, not broken. Just new, cut down to the roots and left to either shrivel or thrive. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry for,” says Remus. He means it. For the first time in almost fourteen years, he means it. “I miss you,” he whispers, his mouth at Sirius’ neck, the hard cut of his jaw resting at his forehead, the sharp muscles and bones he’s still learning to wear like they belong to him, like they’re his own to move and use. “I’ve spent fourteen years missing you.”

For a long time, they make no move but for Sirius’ hand clasping around Remus’ wrist and keeping it there, still as an effigy, the door wide open to the humid summertime dusk. Stasis, Remus thinks. It feels like the word stasis. Stasis. Stasis. Stay-like-this.

Remus confines himself to the right side of his bed; Sirius takes the couch the way he always does when he shows up, and Remus never mentions it when he finds Padfoot curled up on the sitting room rug instead.

If he’d stopped loving Sirius the way logic says he should have, he thinks it might be easier; he could treat this whole thing with the clinical distance and measured kindness he usually reserves for boggarts and banshees and, frankly, much of the rest of the world. The problem is, the heart is not a logical thing—nor, for that matter, is the brain when its spongy grey bits have been rearranged by something as improbable and illogical as love.

He loved his mother even when she started getting so angry towards the end, even when he wasn’t sure she knew who he was anymore, and it hasn’t faded after she’s been fifteen years buried; he loves James, loves every good and bad and embarrassingly stupid thing he ever did, loves his arm around his shoulder and the strength of his trust, the certainty of his own love. He loves Lily and her bite, her sharpness and her softness, her eyes on his over the rim of her teacup, making irritated, exasperated faces for him to decode; he loved Harry from a distance for all those years, and he does it still. There is a part of him, charred and ravaged but pristine, that still loves Peter the way he was: wide-eyed, unsure on his own feet, patient and laughing, always.

And he loves Sirius, that fathomless creature stitched to the shadows of his sitting room floor. If twelve years and the blow of a betrayal worse than killing didn’t smother it, if his own inaction—his own faithlessness—didn’t diminish it entirely, he’s not sure anything ever could. But Remus Lupin, patron saint of broken things, knows exactly how to love figments; he’s not sure he knows how to love this strange, incomprehensible stranger in his house, or if Sirius even wants him to.

It terrifies him, sometimes. The untethered clamor of his own heart. The unpredictability.

Two days later, early in the morning when neither one of them can sleep, Remus asks, “Are you hungry?”

Sirius says, “I am,” and Remus tries not to let his smile wobble out of control.

He makes toast and scrambles eggs with what little butter he has left in the cold cupboard. It sizzles briefly as the skillet heats and he drops the eggs in, one, two, three, the last of them; he’ll have to go down to the village for groceries today. The eggs fold up into each other, translucent, fluffy yellow; he’ll give Sirius the larger portion and hope he doesn’t notice. He’s never reacted well to feeling mothered, but then, neither has Remus, even if he’s quieter about it.

“Do you want tea or coffee? Or both. I can do both.”

“Tea,” Sirius answers. He’s blinking slowly over the Daily Prophet, face half-hidden. “I didn’t know you liked coffee.”

“Sometimes,” says Remus. Mostly he only drinks it when he wakes up at four a.m. and knows he’s not getting back to sleep, so why fight. “I don’t actually like how it tastes. And I never do have cream to make it go down easier.”

“Oh.” Sirius blinks at him as if he’s expecting more; Remus turns to the stove.

While he’s cooking, Sirius stares at the newspaper and reads what seems like every article in it, as if he’s committing every word and lurid headline to memory until Remus slides him a plate of eggs and toast and drops an obscene amount of honey into his tea. There’s a letter from Dumbledore addressed to them, unopened in the same corner of the table Remus left it at an hour ago; he watches Sirius balance some egg on a fork, his fingers shaking only slightly, and puts it from his mind.

It used to be that he’d mostly read the front page and then skip straight to the crossword, and they’d do it together, or Sirius would steal it and take it to the loo or whisk it off to work with him before Remus could notice that whole section was missing, or sometimes they’d fight for it the way they’d fight about which takeout they wanted for dinner or whether Remus really did burn those underwear with the lewd holly wreaths on them with last Christmas’ pudding. Not-fights, un-arguments, the happy, ticklish rapport two people wrap themselves in like their own private dialect. He’s never know Sirius to read the newspaper so thoroughly; he still has that same small crease on his forehead when he frowns, the same exactly, a slight fold between his dark eyebrows. Remus wants to reach over and smooth it out with his thumb.

Instead, he says, “Anything good in the funny pages today?”

“Ministry’s full of blisters and about as useful,” he mutters. “Do you—can I have a quill?”

Remus hands him one, and by the time he’s finished his cup of tea, Sirius has filled in nearly every square. “What’s an eight-letter word for quackery?”

“Trickery,” says Remus, after a light pause, “and you already knew that.”

Sirius gives him a very small smile over his tea. It might be called sly, if Remus could guess. “A seven-letter word for a Ministry official?” he asks, eyes on the paper in front of him.

He trips over a hundred words in his mind trying to find the one that will make Sirius happy and hates that he can’t do it, because he knows exactly what he would have said before: they would sit on the couch on a Saturday or linger at the breakfast table, and Remus would raise his eyebrows and twist his mouth thoughtfully, pretending to innocence because Sirius loved to pull those things out of him, loved the way those words sounded in his soft, careful voice after he’d held them under his tongue for a moment, as if he hadn’t been thinking them all along. They invented a whole lexicon of curses between them, those mornings.

“Plonker,” he says decisively, unsure when he last said that word at all. “But you already knew that, too. I’m starting to think you only like me because I’m a human encyclopedia.” Sirius smiles and fills it in.

“I did,” says Sirius. “I think I understand better now. Words. I mean, I did before but it was—I didn’t remember what they meant,” he finishes, making a vague, sweeping gesture with his hand. “I feel like I’m learning to talk again. Does that make any sense at all?”

“Yes,” says Remus. It’s how he feels with Sirius right now, as if he’s sitting in an old sepia photograph just waiting for the reds and blues and yellows to bleed back in. “It makes a lot of sense, actually.”

“I never used to shut up.”

“You’ll get there. You’ll be giving me headaches and keeping me up within a week.”

“Want to bet?” asks Sirius.

“I would, but I haven’t really got the money to lose. Someone’s got to keep us in cheesy crisps and Weetabix.”

“It’s all right,” says Sirius, smiling again, “I don’t, either.” He takes a bite of his toast and chews slowly. “Blackberry. This is blackberry jam, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Remus answers. “You always liked it, so I—well, I thought you still might.”

“I do like it,” says Sirius, almost surprised. He sniffs at it and takes another bite, and all Remus can think of is six months ago, when he could eat pilled-up bread crusts or rats for days at a time and not notice or care. “It’s sweeter than wine. But I’m not sure I remember that either, only, I always thought it tasted like summer felt.” He looks at Remus for the first time this morning, and Remus’ stomach flies up into his throat and wobbles dangerously. These are the eyes of a thirteen-year-old boy who has just discovered dungbombs and butterbeer, whose heart only knows how to tremble in wonder, and not fear. “I’m sorry. It’s just—it’s weird to have regular meals with food that tastes like something. Or something to sleep on. You probably think I’m insane. I know I probably sound insane.”

“I always thought you were insane,” Remus says, clenching his jaw shut tight because he’s not sure his heart is actually latched down where it’s supposed to be right now. “It was all the gratuitous nudity and eating things out of bins, sometimes. It’s one of your finer qualities.”

“I’m not sure I’ve got many of those,” says Sirius. The grainy light melts between his knobby fingers, his sunken cheeks, paints him so much older and so much younger all at once.

“Well. I’m sure.” He clears away his plate and pulls out two more slices of bread, the very last of the butter. “Finish it off, I’ve got to get groceries today,” he says before Sirius can protest. “D’you want anything? Kibble? Birthday cake? You’re very nearly thirty-five, you know.”

“Oh, that’s low. You can’t just go around reminding a bloke he’s almost thirty-five. That’s like telling him he’s got spots on his chin, it’s bad manners.”

“If it makes you feel any better, you’re not nearly as pruny or wrinkly as you could be, all things considered. You’re quite handsome.”

“Got a thing for escaped convicts, do you.”

“Wouldn’t you know, I absolutely do,” says Remus, something very warm and very pleasant bubbling up with his grin. “Aren’t you a lucky beast.”

And Sirius laughs. It’s coarse as old wool, but it’s a laugh, and Remus wants to swallow it down until he never forgets what that feels like, the secret thrill of making Sirius laugh. “You’re welcome to come with me,” he offers. “I won’t even bring the leash.”

“I’ll stay here,” says Sirius. “Guard the perimeter. Shred the Lupin library.”

He’s still smiling when Remus looks over at him again, chin on his fist, eyes bright and surprised at himself, their new equilibrium shaken apart and smashed back together again. I did this, thinks Remus. I carved that laughter from your face, from your mouth.

Early afternoon, heather curling along the lane in bright violet waves, the soft balmy haze of late June, a mealy wood-warm gush of loamy richness twining through the sinews of the road, turned-over earth, the hot cavern of creation, green things, growing things, alive things. He used to love this time of year, just home from Hogwarts and the hills ripe with potential. He’d walk down to the village alone or with his mother, her hair a copper-gold halo as they stopped at the bookshop or the bakery or the grocery, spending evenings on a streetside bench with sugary lemonade while the sun stroked orange-red-pink arms across the sky. His mother picked clustered white brambles and sprigs of Jacob’s-ladder from the field on the way home, the bright lull of her voice pitched high, nose bent to the blooms, taking as many as her arms could carry. Remus has never stopped missing her.

At the village shop, he hunts the aisles for midweek sales with a green plastic basket hanging off his elbow, watching for the familiar reds and yellows of discount soup and cheese and cereal. Look at me! I am a Smart Buy for a Smart Man! I’m 100% Whole Grain! I’m totally not made of sawdust and floor scrapings! scream the peeling stickers. Love-me-love-me-love-me. Remus always feels a strange sort of affinity for them, their scratchy stale longing catching in his heart with its own undertow of want-me-want-me-want-me murmuring just beneath. He takes a few cans of twice-marked-down vegetable soup and lines them up in a row.

He doesn’t need to bother much with vegetables thanks to his garden and his ten green fingers, but he eyes the pomegranates suspended like lanterns, the plums bursting in their skins, their dark mouthfuls, remembering the way Sirius would let peach juice run down his chin to stain his shirt in Augusts; his mouth tasted like them afterwards, sweet fuzzy golden-bright, his sticky, hard-soft lips moving with Remus’. He fills a small bag with them, another with plums, a single heavy pomegranate.

He buys cream, tea bags, off-brand flour, sugar, eggs, discount potatoes with eyes he’ll have to cut off, good brown bread, cheap cheddar, turkey instead of the roast he wants. He can barely afford it, but he’ll string it out, make it last.

On the way to the counter, he finds wine on sale, dark red wine and amber-smooth whiskey. He doesn’t remember the last time he had wine; it might have been in Amsterdam, or maybe it was with Sirius. Maybe it’s been that long.

Would you stop moping, you miserable fuck, Sirius had said. He’d been clutching something; his nose was in Remus’ hair and Remus was bent over his Potions textbook, frantic to catch up, but at least it was one of the last times he’d ever be frantic to fail an end-of-term Potions exam again. Sixth year had a way of making everything seem too close but too far away at the same time, like looming adulthood, never quite sure if you should be doing things differently now or simply carrying on like nothing had changed because, secretly, you still felt thirteen years old.

You act like you want me to blow us to kingdom come every time I’m near a cauldron, he said. Is that it? Do you want me to blow your eyebrows off?

Sirius grinned at him and pulled the wine cork between his teeth, sharp white and wicked in the light of the Common Room fire, and Remus felt his stomach twist and bottom out hotly, something in his face overflowing before he could stopper it up and shove it out of Sirius’ reach. Keep talking like that and you’ll blow me out of my clothes and flat on my back, Mr. Lupin.

Shut up, he said, but his cheeks were burning and the words wouldn’t focus again, suddenly unimportant, too static when his heart was throbbing in his throat; from the corner of his eye, he watched Sirius watching him.

You’ve been staring at that page for ten minutes, Merlin’s tits, man. Stop trying to give yourself an aneurysm and I’ll help you.

With what, wine you stole from your cousin?

Don’t Prefect at me, Moony, you know what it does to my complexion, said Sirius, sitting close, his knee brushing Remus’ knee. You’ve got ink all over your fingers. You are hopeless. You are pathetic.

You’re just going to get it all over yourself, said Remus, but he didn’t pull away when Sirius took his hand and rubbed his thumb over his fingers, his knuckles. He held his breath.

It’s your fault, you know. Making such a mess of things. Oh, don’t give me that look, you absolute prune, what are you going to do? Sirius took a long drink from the wine bottle, rather longer than was probably appropriate, and grinned at him. Are you going to blow my house down, Remus?

Shut up.

I don’t think you want me to, Sirius said, sticking the bottle under Remus’ nose, a knuckle brushing his unshaven jaw. I think you like my mouth open. He’d never had wine before; it didn’t burn his nose like certain other off-limits and possibly illegal beverages that he had certainly never imbibed in the confines of the dormitory, and he thought he caught a gust of currants or maybe strawberry shooting up through the neck, a heady rush of flavor. He took a drink and tried to ignore the way Sirius’ eyes settled on his throat, tried to ignore the way the rim of the bottle was still damp from his mouth. Tried, but not for very long.

He buys the cheapest bottle on the way out, something with a no-name label already peeling off in crinkly gold leaf, its blood-dark liquid teeming with memory. For a good day, he thinks. For a peach-warm August day.

Dinner is runner beans and rosemary potatoes and cheese toasties, and somehow they manage to get through the whole thing without anyone’s juice getting spilled or doing anything cataclysmic, like accidentally touching each other. There’s a great joke here somewhere, and if Remus wasn’t so focused on making choppy, lukewarm conversation he might even take the opportunity: So, basically, he’d say, a werewolf and a fugitive walk into a bar, except it’s not a bar, they’re eating rosemary potatoes in the middle of a war that never actually ended without any decent alcohol between them and trying very hard not to let any loose ends come undone so their stuffing doesn’t fall out, because they’re not even sure they know where each other’s parts go anymore. Ha, ha.

It’s really not a funny joke.

“It honestly does taste better if you make it yourself,” Remus says. Sirius has lapsed into silence again over his bread crust, staring somewhere above the sink. “Your potatoes are wonderful,” he says, and feels immediately awkward and stodgy, much like that one gnarled raisin at the bottom of every box.

“This is the first thing I’ve cooked in years and my fingers don’t even look like I put them through a meat grinder,” says Sirius. “Everything tastes like the best thing I’ve ever had, honestly.”

He watches Sirius from the corner of his eye, piling his fork up with more potatoes. The whole house smells like rosemary, crisp and peppery-sweet. “Even rats?” he asks, careful not to sound accusatory.

Sirius swallows. “Even rats,” he says, and doesn’t look at Remus.

They wash up the way Muggles do it, all soap and soggy fingers like they used to, but they’ve apparently used up their slim ration of words for the day and Sirius is taking great care not to let their fingers or their elbows touch when Remus hands him a plate to towel off, hands reaching for the rim of porcelain, the other end of a fork, the bottom of a glass, as if this staggering, jelly-legged thing they’re standing on could crumble if he touched Remus for even a moment instead. He’d probably skip town, the county, possibly the country.

“I’m not going to do a runner.” Sirius is frowning a soft sort of frown, like it doesn’t know whether to be ashamed or angry with Remus, or himself, or both. “So you can stop looking like your underwear is giving you a rash in delicate places.”

“I didn’t think you were.”

“Liar.” Sirius is wearing that odd half-smile Remus still doesn’t know how to translate, crooked and wan. His shirt still hangs loose on him but his skin looks better, Remus thinks, less like muzzy cobwebs and more real. “Your face, your face does this thing when you’re worrying, it always has. It’s like someone’s just pulled the plug right out of you.”

“Worry is my middle name, remember? My default state of being since I was eleven years old.”

“I thought your middle name was Isabella,” says Sirius. “Anyway. Stop it, I don’t want to have to take walkies with you to soothe your nerves.”

“The indignity,” Remus smiles. They used to do that after full moons, after he woke up with Sirius’ arms around him, knees pressed into knees to keep his patched seams together; after a while, when it started getting harder and harder to hold both their pieces in familiar shapes, they were the only times Remus could still feel like a normal twenty-year-old man with something to fight for at all. “You never complained when I let you chase the birds.”

“That was because you wanted to chase the birds,” says Sirius. “You don’t get us thrown out of a Muggle park and then say it’s my fault.”

“It was your fault, you lying knob.”

“I mean, if that’s what clears your conscience, Moony. But you’re forgetting that I also know what you did in the Prefects’ bathroom, was it—sixth year? It was.”

“Do you have a point, or am I still supposed to be impressed with the size of your prick eighteen years later? Because I’m a changed man, Padfoot, sudden nudity in the toilets doesn’t do it for me anymore.”

“The point is that your clean sweater vest-y exterior is only a shell hiding a lot of dubious spells and peppermint vodka. And naked bits, under all the crusty wool and what-all.”

“And I’ll remind you that you were there for that, too. And so were James and Peter.”

Sirius’ face lifts when he laughs in a way Remus decides he likes very much. “And Pomfrey believed you. You always could lie, though,” he says, and though Remus can’t feel the bite in it, he can’t wholly appreciate it.

“She still sends me chocolate every Christmas,” he says. “She always says I’ve got a good head. Probably it’s just repayment for keeping you and the boils with the eyes out of her sight as much as I could.”

“You know, you just called me a knob,” says Sirius, wonderingly, warmly. “I just—” he takes a short breath and laughs, surprised, as if it’s shaken something loose inside him. “This is—is this—”

“This is good,” Remus offers, feeling strangely as if he is baring his throat. “It’s good. Don’t you think?”

“Yes,” says Sirius, “I do think.”

Out back, eating plums under the oak, they watch the sky stir itself to dusk, the nightbirds flitting like straw kites against the darkening bowl of the night. It’s easy like this, with the sighs of the forest and the distant, drowsy murmur of the village below; if Remus closes his eyes he can almost, almost be sixteen years old again, throwing plum pits down the hill with Sirius Black and James Potter, passing around a bottle of Firewhiskey because Remus’ parents are out and they’ll all three wake up in the cool beige embrace of the bathtub in the morning.

He’s not sixteen anymore when he opens his eyes, though. He’s thirty-four years old with the moon tugging at his bones and a fight ahead of him and a man who comes in fits and starts beside him, and when he looks at Sirius, there is a man he’s never seen before looking out of his eyes, and Remus wants more than anything to love him. He wants a do-over, for once in his life. He wants to fall in love again.

“Harry wrote today,” Sirius tells him, the fingers of his left hand splayed wide through the grass. “He seems—agitated, like. The quiet sort of agitated, not the one where you set things on fire or kick Snape’s arse up between his eyeballs. The push-it-down-in-your-belly sort.”

“He tends to keep it in,” Remus agrees, leaning back against the tree, remembering how Harry was supposed to visit this summer and they were all three going to have an echo of what they might have been. He hates this, that Harry is never going to know the joy of being almost fifteen years old with a whole lazy summer ready to unfold just for him; even though he understands the logic of it, there’s a part of Remus that will never understand why the most brilliant Wizard of his age can’t think of anything better than letting Harry suffer alone, as if Remus wouldn’t have burned himself from the inside out even at twenty-one just to keep him safe. “He’s not like James at that. Or Lily.”

“James would have taken it out on Greenhouse Five and an entire cheesecake,” says Sirius, but his smile fades as soon as it comes, so quickly Remus isn’t sure, for a moment, whether he imagined it or not. “I just—I hate this. I don’t even know if I’m saying the right things to him. Christ, Remus, I can barely help myself.”

“Sirius, he loves you,” says Remus, surprised at how stern he sounds, but there are few things he is certain of these days, and this is one of them. “He needs you more than anyone. You’re doing fine.”

“Mm,” says Sirius, tearing out some grass and letting it fall to the ground the way he used to in first year and even into their second, plopping down beside Remus at the lakeshore with a whole arsenal of tactics meant to annoy but really only wanting to talk. Tell me a story, Moony. “He talks about you too, you know. Thinks you’re ham on rye. Which you are, obviously,” Sirius grins, lopsided, just as beautiful as he ever was. “Always knew he’d be a bright boy.”

His own letters to Harry have been less frequent, less fervent, likely, than Sirius’, but he hasn’t stopped writing or stopped missing him since that last day in his office more than a year ago; he wonders if this is just another condition of getting older, or maybe it’s just written into the fabric of his own life, this endless, exquisite ache for other people.

“I tried, you know,” he says. “After—after everything. Not as hard as I should have. But I tried.”

Sirius draws his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them; it makes him look so young. “It isn’t your fault.”

“No, it is. It’s at least a little my fault.”

“It isn’t your bloody fault, Remus. You just—stop making everything your fault.”

Remus exhales through his nose, shaky, miserable with it. “It’s not yours, either. It never was.”

Sirius holds his hand up to the last of the sun, summer gold licking through the spaces between his thin fingers when he flexes them in the shade, bird-boned. He’s starting to think that maybe this is another conversation they’ve tiptoed out of, but then Sirius is smiling into the shadow-light, saying, “I remember you, you know.”

Remus has to bite his tongue for a moment so he doesn’t bite down on the heart in his mouth and break it instead.

“You remember me,” he repeats.

Sirius nods, his face soft, sun-touched. “I remember you,” he says slowly, “I mean, I always did. In Azkaban, it was—hard, which, God, that’s like saying evisceration is mildly uncomfortable, but I did. There was a lot of bad, but mostly there were a lot of just—fuzzy pictures, nonsense, because it does that to you, Moony, sometimes I wouldn’t have known your face if I saw it. I forgot what your voice sounded like. And James, too, James was just this—angular black blob. Probably it was the hair,” he says, barking out an acid-laugh. Remus tries not to wince. “He always looked like such a little tosser when he did that finger-comb thing.”

The One-Handed Witch-Killer, humiliating name and finger technique included, developed, patented, and practiced by James Potter, and successful a whole whopping one time in sixth year when Emmeline Vance pulled him behind the broomshed one dark October evening for a clandestine snog. It was also—as noted—deeply embarrassing and did little for his image as a Dashing Young Man-Panther, as Remus never lost an opportunity to remind him. He smiles weakly in spite of the way his stomach lurches into an elaborate triple-knot. “Like a hedgehog with a bad gland problem,” he says.

“And it always stuck that way when Evans threw juice in it, poor old sod,” says Sirius. He tips his head back against the tree trunk, eyeing the first of the stars. “When I got out it was like—it didn’t all come rushing back at once, but a lot of it did and I just didn’t know what to do with it. It was like there was nowhere I could put it inside me so I just tried to think of Harry and Peter and Hogwarts, just shut the rest of it out, but it was like a scream that never stopped, or glass breaking. It felt exactly like falling into the North Sea did. I can’t even explain—it’s just, what that was, for everything to slam into you again after twelve years. I swear to God even thinking was like choking on salt water, sometimes I didn’t know what the words I thought even meant. You never appreciate how clearly you can think, or how you can do something like put one word after another until you’ve had your mind strangling you between your ears. My own skin was too bright. The smell of honeysuckle made me retch.”

Remus feels the world lurch beneath him, stones settling in his belly; he holds very still and watches Sirius’ hand where it lies flat on the grass, beautiful, frightening, brilliant thing who spent twelve years drowning, who would still be if it weren’t for Harry; he feels his own fingers move as if in penance, straining for Sirius. It’s like a match: his hand and Sirius’ hand, a single moment ready to spark.

“It got easier,” Sirius continues, “when I’d been on land for a couple months. I could work my way through them better, sort of match them up with what I remembered while I was in prison. I felt like a kid matching shapes in boxes.” Remus hears him swallow and take a breath, face hidden now in the darkness. “I—most of what I had in there, it was splashes, like. I remembered there was a boy. And I was a boy, too. I remembered the shape of your shadow at half-moon and how it melted with mine. And the way your shoulderblades felt pressed against my chest, how they were warm, but sharp, and I could feel you breathe. And the moon. You were the moon and the moon at least always knew where you were, so I watched for it. I knew that your eyes were the color of mahogany in the sunlight. That was all I really remembered about them in there, and before you start spouting off your witticisms about how Sirius Black could have a career writing for Easy and Enchanted just remember that I could have compared them to chocolate instead, but I didn’t. Just, you know, if it comes to that.”

His eyes are bright as riverstones; Remus can’t bear to look at them, but he can’t bear not to, so he holds steady to the foreground for once instead of the dead expanse of years, washed out with time. “Anyway, I remembered that. You. You and your shadow and my shadow, and your eyes were mahogany like trees, and when I got out, one night I curled up in the forest, and the wind blew in the trees, and I could smell the wet bark all around me, and I thought, Oh, there you are.”

“In the trees,” says Remus, hoarsely, miserably, “in the moon. Were you actually reading my Auden when I wasn’t looking?”

“Only your dirty Rimbaud, mostly,” he says, “but I. You were there. And you gave me that. And I remember. And here you are.”

Remus is sometimes a fool. He is sometimes distant, rigid, oblivious, curled in on himself so tightly nothing can ever get inside the dark spaces he guards with the teeth of his silence and his solitude. But he’s never been a coward.

Very gently, Remus puts his palm over the back Sirius’ hand.

He can feel him tense, all the way up his wrist to the tendons of his forearms and splitting down his shoulders, but Sirius never pulls away, not when Remus counts each of his knuckles with the pad of his thumb, not when he turns his hand and runs his fingers over Sirius’ palm to feel the rough warmth there, waiting to leap forward. Flint and tinder, a single spark in the mouth of the night.

“You never lost me,” Remus whispers, and Sirius closes his eyes, his throat bobbing once, twice, as he tugs Remus’ hand a little closer to him through the grass, slow like a curl of rust. “And I never forgot, I never could have. I was always right here.”

Sirius never lets go of his hand in the dark.

Conversation is a morning glory: insidious, sudden, sprouting all over everything whether you like it or not.

They talk for hours, for days.

There are anthills.

It’s the only way Remus can think to describe it: sudden shifts in the climate of the dinner table and afternoon tea that make them stumble and itch at the ankles until it’s not so much an anthill anymore as a lumbering mountain and they’re not so much ants as enormous, angry centipedes crawling up pants legs, ready to bite some very sensitive parts. It billows in from the west, gathering like bruised rainclouds in the kitchen and following them around all day until it comes crashing down when there’s nowhere left for it to go in this crooked, stuffy cottage. This, he thinks from his spot on the couch, is at least one thing that hasn’t changed at all, and probably never will.

So, here they are: it’s a Tuesday. It’s right after the shrill glass scream of the full moon splintered his bones two days earlier. He is out of sugary cereal, his hair is puffing in the humidity, and Sirius has just broken his best quill, splashing ink all over every visible surface and extremity and swearing violently as he flicks his wand to clean it up before it leaves too many hideous stains.

Remus grinds his teeth.

He’s editing a new chapter of the Transfiguration textbook that never ends when Sirius finally snaps his book shut, abandoning all pretense of not being in the mood to kick things or let his impressive throwing arm—still inexplicably strong from years of Quidditch, or maybe all the swimming—do the talking and instead starts going through the day’s letters, furious internal monologue blazing to the surface occasionally in the form of clipped, serrated sounds. It’s almost nostalgic, or maybe just familiar enough for a sick sort of comfort, a boy with a quick mouth and a head full of hurt in the Gryffindor Common Room and Remus with a brand new mood to greet and weather.

“Great bloke, Dumbledore,” Sirius mutters, low, uneven, shoving Remus’ letter back into its envelope with unnecessary force, “he always knows best. Always. Absolutely. Un-fucking-questionably.”

“It’s just a bit of research,” says Remus. “I’ll get it done from here and mailed off by next week, why’s it got you hacked off?”

He sees it more in the way Sirius doesn’t look at him, the spite held high in the brittle blade of his jaw, his mouth twisted off sideways. It’s a look Remus used to privately call The Constipated Aristocrat, though it probably wouldn’t do to remind him of it now. “I’m not hacked off, I’m just amazed, Moony. I mean, he’s practically Jesus Christ come to guide the unwashed masses to peace and pumpkin juice. You know?” He meets Remus’ eyes, and suddenly they’re all tangled up in each other in the most uncomfortable, intangible ways. “Of course you know.”

“I don’t know, actually,” he says, setting his book down on the coffee table. Something very old and very ugly unfurls beneath the quickening of his pulse. “Why don’t you tell me, Sirius?”

“I mean he knows what’s best for my own godson. And us, of course. Better than me, better than you. It’s always been that way. Must be the beard, or maybe it’s just all the fucking manipulation.”

“There are reasons things are the way they are,” says Remus, not quite believing it himself and knowing full well that Sirius—mercurial, brilliant, restless Sirius who bows to nothing and no one—never did. “You know that.”

“Reasons,” Sirius repeats. “So—how long before those reasons have you running all over Shropshire and Cornwall trying not to get your throat ripped out every night?”

And, well. That’s what the crash sounds like.

These last few weeks have been something of a miracle and something of a tight-throat stretch of tension because this new rhythm they’ve wrapped around themselves could snap at any moment; Remus knows, in theory, that they are playing with fire—great huge flaming logs—and he should smother this before it burns them clean through, but in practice, it’s a fight he has perversely wished he could have for fourteen years, and the chance to have at it now is dizzying. By the time they could have had it out back then, neither one of them really expected to outlive the year. They were both too far gone.

So, fourteen years later, Remus snaps.

“It’ll probably be around the same time everyone gets quiet when I walk in the room, you remember that?” His fingers are shaking; he takes a breath, ignores it. “Of course you do. And then after dinner you’ll tell me not to wait up, and I’ll get to wonder where you’ve gone and whether you’re safe or if you’ve been hurt and get treated like a damn leper—oh, no, I mean a werewolf—and told I’m acting paranoid when you turn up for a change of clothes three days later because you can’t be sharing a flat with a Dark Creature, what a lapse of judgment, right? You never, ever knew me after all, isn’t that it? A whole fucking decade doesn’t count when you’re a werewolf, right? Stop me when this starts to sound familiar, by all means.”

“You never fucking told me,” Sirius growls, dangerous, raw. He still wears his anger like a Black, always has, bone-white and cold in the hollows of his cheeks and the arch of his brows; it fits him like a cloak held against every line of his body, and it might be frightening if Remus couldn’t cut right through it, if he didn’t know it as well as he does. “If you’d just said anything —”

“You wouldn’t have believed me by that point. Don’t even act like you would have.”

“Jesus Christ, you’re so full of shit I don’t know how you can even talk around it,” he snarls, standing up furiously and pacing the small square of space between the chair and the kitchen. “All I wanted—you don’t even know, Remus, I kept thinking—any day now! I thought you’d fucking say something, tell me where you’d been, swear it wasn’t you, come after me, anything at all, but I kept coming home to your goddamn notes every night and then you ran off here—”

“I wasn’t the one who ran,” Remus snaps. “You did that. Long after the point you’d have believed anything I told you.” He remembers the notes full of bloated excuses he left Sirius in the beginning, on the coffee table and the nightstand for him to find after he’d been off with Auror work all day, how he hated the way Sirius was twenty years old and came home at night with smoke-grey skin; it was like missing an eye and an arm half the time and there was nothing he could do about it. By the end of May that year they were different people, sitting down to breakfast with strangers and sleeping with ghosts, and they’d both learned to lie like—well, like adults, that dark, serpentine language they’d picked up under the guise of fighting the good fight.

“I would have fucking believed you,” says Sirius, and, God, Remus doesn’t want to hear his voice like this, burnt out with fury and fourteen years of regret gone rotten at sea, but he can’t look away. He won’t. “I always believed you, Remus.”

“You didn’t trust me. You didn’t trust me—shut up—you didn’t, and you have no idea what it did to me, you still don’t. It never mattered how much I loved you or what I did because I was still a werewolf even though you conveniently forgot about that for a few years until things got rough. I was probably the first person on your mind when Moody started raving about spies, wasn’t I?”

“You idiot, it was never about you being a werewolf! It was about you not talking to me, it was about you never being there, it was about you getting quieter and different and it was about you fucking lying to me and not even trying to sound convincing! I should have trusted you! I was fucking wrong, Remus, I’ve had almost fourteen years to live with that, but you never tried to fix things, you never came to me, you just let it fall apart. It was like you didn’t care anymore.”

“So—what then, Sirius?” he asks quietly, feeling the heaviness underneath his eyes. “What were you going to do if I told you? Tell me to stop? Put me under your arm and take me home?”

“I’d have gone to Hogwarts and strangled Albus Dumbledore in his own beard,” Sirius spits. “And then no one would’ve—”

“If you even think about pointing that finger at me, you’d better turn the other one right back on yourself.” It’s nothing Remus hasn’t thought so many, many times before, that James and Lily might still be alive if he’d told only them where he’d been, that he and Sirius could have fought through it all and set themselves back down where they were supposed to be. It’s nothing he hasn’t blamed himself for, and then Sirius for, and now Peter for, over and over and over. He wonders, sometimes, if it even matters anymore. “You don’t get to do this,” he says. “Not this time.”

“No, because now I don’t have to guess where you’re really going when you’ve got some nice old lady in Dorset to see about your mum’s house. For a week.”

The clock ticks through the damp air as if in compensation for the sudden lull; Remus almost thinks they’re done with it, but then Sirius looks over at him again, seething still, and he can’t help but think that even this is better than their silences or all those dead lapses, that even this rage is new and precious to him. It’s like being drunk and having a hangover at the same time, or maybe it’s just like an extremely condensed version of the flu.

“I would have done anything for you, no matter what—even at the end,” says Sirius, glaring down at him, a tight ball of energy, finer than any trigger. ”I was ready to believe anything you told me. I’d have thought you knew that, but I guess you really didn’t know me as well as you thought.” Something in the region of Remus’ spleen fractures and explodes.

“Was this before or after you fucked me goodbye?” he bites out, teeth clenched. He can hear his heart thumping in his temples; if he ignores it long enough maybe it’ll stop trying so hard to break.

“It was always, you fucking—do you think I just stopped? Is that it? Did you even listen to me, the other night?”

“Did you listen to me? Do you remember how?”

“No!” Sirius shouts, snapping his head up hard; Remus finds his eyes, unflinching and furious. “I don’t! You always do this, you don’t even talk to me, Remus, and you act like, like I’m just supposed to fucking understand you and everything you never say. I talk more than you do and I could barely remember what my voice was for a year ago. And now it’s already all hush-hush knocking feet with Dumbledore under the dinner table and here it is all over again.” He looks hurt, then wild and then defiant, as angry as Remus has ever seen him. “Is this what you did for twelve years? Locked yourself up with your books and waited for Dumbledore to come calling? Were you doing a fine job of forgetting before I fucked it up for you?”

“Who the bloody hell do you think buried James and Lily,” Remus hisses. “Who the bloody fuck do you think spent twelve years in love with someone who let him believe he was the one who let it happen? Because it wasn’t you.”

“And I’m still paying for it, in case you forgot,” Sirius rasps, and turns away.

“Sirius—”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does,” says Remus, struggling to outmaneuver his erratic breathing, and finding himself fairly unsuccessful.

“No, it doesn’t,” says Sirius. He smiles horribly, his mouth a blade cutting a vicious look across his face that is at once too daring and too young for a man of his age. Remus, by contrast, simply looks too old. “Just—déjà vu, innit? Right back where we left off. At least I know who to thank for it this time.”

“Where are we? The part where it’s fine for you and James and Peter to have secrets, but it’s not fine for me? Is that where we are? Or are you just going to cut and run again like you were dying to do last time?”

Sirius goes very still; the lamplight gets in between his teeth, turns them feral, and his voice quivers tightly, slowly. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Oh, don’t act like you don’t know,” says Remus, and he’s shocked to find his own voice still steady. “You regretted it. You regretted it, I made you regret it and it’s fourteen years later and we can’t fucking fix this. And I suppose that’s my fault, too.”

For a long moment, Sirius doesn’t speak; he just stares, stunned and hurt somewhere beneath the tense twist of his mouth in a place only Remus has ever been able to reach. “Fuck you,” he says, his voice foggy, far-off, and then his feet are in soft retreat on the kitchen tile. Remus notes dimly that he still lets the door slam as he runs a hand over his face and swallows down his heart, foolish thing.

This is why he hates fighting. This is why he does everything he can—shuts down, acquiesces, concedes, placates—to avoid it and the oppressive shame and ill-feeling and disappointment that follow and stick in his head like burrs. Not that Remus has ever been in the habit of fighting with anyone, even when he was younger; that was always Sirius and James, who, because they were Sirius and James, could just punch it out of each other and be all the better for it, bruised shins and hexed bits and all. Lotte would just shake her head and go quiet, and he can remember his parents, too, their whispered earthquakes, how they would stop talking and push their mouths into smiles when he came downstairs to breakfast during holidays, how sad it always made him, that they were all three such pale, distant ghosts in the same house.

With Sirius, it always started out dull like this, an ache in his eye socket, the salt-iron tinge of blood in his mouth at the full moon—and then, always, the shuddering blast, but then Sirius would crawl into his bed in the dormitory and steal his blankets, he’d kiss him goodnight after they moved into the flat, or Remus would set out two cups of tea a few hours later, and it was over, and they hardly even needed to talk about it. This never used to leave him with his head bowed between his knees and his teeth chattering on warm nights in July.

He wishes it could all slow down for a while, that they might learn how to navigate the world together again, wishes, uselessly, that it would stop hurting them, giving and then taking and leaving them standing in the smoldering rubble with nothing; he’s starting to understand Lotte, starting to understand Sirius so much better. When the world hurts you, you want to hurt it back. Maybe you even try. But the thing is, if it can crush you under its heel like so many sun-dried flobberworms in the first place, you’re never in a position to do any lasting damage yourself. It’s like trying to stare down the sun.

Three a.m., and he wakes up after not much sleep at all to find a bar of dark chocolate on the kitchen table, the good, dusty sort that’s always been his favorite, bitter-rich as velvet. Remus picks it up and looks into it like it’s a well, or a mirror. An apology, then, which Sirius either stole or was saving for this very inevitable occasion; possibly he has also discovered where Remus hides his spares, of which there are many and which Sirius always sniffed out when he wanted to impress or decided one of them could not go on living until they’d eaten an entire bar in one sitting. In the sitting room, he’s flipping through a slim volume of something or other in the honeyed light of the end-table lamp, his hair falling across his forehead, ink spilled into water. Remus sits down on the couch; at the other end, Sirius runs his thumb along the soft curl of the pages, expectant, quiet.

“We could say we’re sorry but we know that already,” says Remus. He’s exhausted in a way he never is when the moon’s on the wane. “Or we could make overtures about how we’re never going to hurt each other again but we’d be lying.”

Sirius snorts. “I never did that before and I’m not going to start now,” he says, laying his book on the coffee table. “I always hated that, you know. It’s bullshit. I am going to hurt you, and you’re going to hurt me, people are like walking steak knives and that’s just the way the Beater swings his bat.” He presses the heels of his hands into his eyes and then bends forward to rest his elbows on his knees, staring into the old ashes piled up in the grate. “It’s what you do after that matters. Even I know that much.”

“And the right kind of Honeydukes’ finest.”

“Yeah, well. When you live with a huge slag who’ll roll over and do anything for the seventy-percent dark, it’s good to keep your inventory stocked.”

“Not anything,” says Remus, unable to keep the laugh from slipping into his voice. “Just most things.”

The curtains rustle behind them, the air full of clover and green summer sweetness underneath, the distant promise of rain rolling in with dawn. Weather like this always used to make him sad, the starless nothing-nights with the blank black canvas hanging overhead, just waiting for the downpour that won’t stop for days while the tiny white houses in the village below glint like a hundred ships dreaming of the sea, all drowned out, all hushed. Owls wouldn’t deliver mail before storms like this.

“I don’t want to fight with you,” he says. Sirius has a small nick on the bump of bone at the side of his bare foot; Remus traces it with his eyes. “We’re not twenty-one anymore. We don’t get to be twenty-one again. We shouldn’t be doing this,” he says. “It’s stupid.”

“We’re not twenty-one anymore,” Sirius murmurs. “Does that actually matter, or do you just want to plug your ears and pretend it does?” His holds his chin high, almost, almost a challenge. “We’re older. Who cares. I don’t want to be twenty-one again, I fucked that up once already, as you know perfectly well.”

Remus leans back and lowers his eyes to the hollow of Sirius’ throat where he’s started to put more meat on his bones, and he thinks there, right there is where’d like press his face and sleep until the rain wakes them up. The bones of his shoulders and his wrists still knife out too sharply, straining at his skin, but they don’t look quite so lethal anymore, changed like so many parts of him, like both of them, but still so much the same as he remembers. And maybe that’s just part of learning their own cartography again, all these strange-familiar edges to puzzle out. Maybe this is the growing up they never got to do together; if so, it’s pretty miserable.

“The worst thing I’ve ever done in my life is stop trusting you for twelve years,” says Remus, staring down at his lap. “I just want to—I miss you. And I meant what I said the other night, Sirius, you never lost me. Not once. But I don’t know how to—how to make things better and I want to, just, so much. I just want everything to be all right again, and I want us to be better, and I’m sorry. I am.”

“I love you,” says Sirius, and something inside Remus just shatters, shot to rubble along a trembling, long-dormant fault line. “Don’t, Remus. Just—I love you, and I am sorry, and we don’t have time to sit around all night and listen to the worst things I’ve done. You know them all, anyway.”

“I’m not,” he mutters wildly, arrested by the flash of grey in Sirius’ eyes, “I’m not—you know, we’re not the same. And we can’t be the same, and I’m—God, I’m so sorry, I’m just—I’m afraid. It’s been so long, and I’m afraid of not knowing how to close the gap or whether you’ll even want what there is of me. I want to do everything right and I don’t know how. I don’t think I ever did.”

Because if I ever did, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now, he thinks, watching the way Sirius’ eyes flash and lift to his own, his face flaring like the summer heat and shifting in a way Remus is only just beginning to understand.

“I think,” Sirius says, very slowly, “I think you spend too much time thinking about—about what we were, or whatever we should have been. I think both of us do.” Sirius takes his wrists between his hardened palms, tugs—gently, gently—and pulls Remus with him, into the patch of light until their shadows dissolve together on the floor. “I think maybe we need to start thinking about what we are.”

He leans forward, fits his forehead against Sirius’ forehead and closes his eyes, wondering at how a man who spent twelve years in Azkaban can still smell so much the same as he always did, all soft green things, growing things, Sirius things. His nose is the same smooth cut jutting out long and rigid, still rubs bone-sharp at Remus’; his eyelashes tickle Remus’ face when he blinks, the cheekbones jackknife more than they used to. His voice is like parched earth learning to hold water after a drought, but it still heightens with surprise, learning to fill out with laughter and promise and hope like it’s thawing after all this time. Listening to his heartbeat this close doesn’t feel like eavesdropping. It just feels like Sirius, solid and bright and beautiful. Alive.

“Help me, then,” Remus breathes, his hands molding over Sirius’ hands, feeling them warm to the touch when the rain comes in and the wind shakes the plaster walls, the curtains, the shingles on the roof, everything, everything but them.

The rain lasts for a week, most of which is spent in the kitchen cooking everything that sounds like it has a sliver of a prayer of being edible until even Remus starts to feel heavier, younger, fuller; Sirius, starved for everything, eats like a sixteen-year-old coming off an overnight growth spurt, swallow after swallow as his chalky skin begins to flush with easy satisfaction. They get soaked in the garden while they’re picking cantaloupe, chard, runner beans, courgette, carrots, crisp green bell peppers. They make enormous sandwiches, piled up with crunchy-wet lettuce and cheese and tomatoes that gush out and soak the bread; Sirius develops a taste for plain, versatile oatmeal with fruit rather than obnoxious sugary bits mixed in, and he smiles his new crooked smile when Remus teases him for it; they stew beans in a pot on the stove, shred potatoes for corned beef hash, keep watch over cinnamon buns in the morning. Remus doesn’t have any yeast, so they make them the quick way, soft in the middle and sharp with spice, licking icing off their fingers like honey while the rain washes out the sky all day and night.

The morning it finally stops, they walk down the lane to the old blackberry bushes that spring up every summer, both of them well-hidden by the brush and the clammy fog rising up from the gravel in thick grey gasps. They stand too close; they brush elbows, knees, scratch their fingers on the same thorns.

“Don’t pick those ones,” he tells Sirius, reaching out to push his hand away from the very top row. It leaves a wine-bloody streak across his knuckles. “They’re for the birds.”

Sirius gives him a stare that is probably meant to be something in the neighborhood of withering but is rather besieged by the way his mouth squirms into a quiet smile instead, the one Remus has come to think of as his Remus-Lupin-You-Are-Such-A-Plonker smile. He very nearly knows how to pull it out and make it bloom now, which is itself a bit of a head-rush, watching the shapes they make here in the grey light. “I can’t believe you,” says Sirius. “You know what I think? I think you grew up so fast that you’re regressing now. You’re a seventeen-year-old boy in a man-suit. Next thing we’ll have a screaming row because I killed a moth instead of carrying it outside and whispering encouragement, and then we’ll have really come full circle.”

“Yes,” says Remus, “we will. Don’t! Don’t pick those either,” he starts, grabbing Sirius by the wrist this time and pulling him up, letting his thumb linger over the thin, warm skin there. Sirius promptly leans down and does it again, then a third time; Remus realizes he’s doing it on purpose right around the fourth time he bats Sirius’ hand away, just an excuse to touch and be touched, as if they’re testing the flavor of skin-on-skin, the texture of their hands. Remus laughs, knowing Sirius will revel in it, too. “You live in my house, Black, so I’m afraid you’ll have to follow my rules. The ones at bird-height are for the birds, and lost bugs in the house are to be protected on penalty of death. It’s law.”

“You are such a tosser,” he says fondly, a watercolor wash of blackberry on his lips. Remus knows what that used to taste like in his mouth, all sticky red sweetness; he touches his lips unconsciously. “For the birds! You just do that to fatten them up and make them all lazy and lethargic, and then it’s all the easier to chase them with, I know how you operate.” He shoves a few more into his mouth and looks down at his shirt, stained with familiar fingerprints all down the sleeve. “And you got juice all over my arm, you immature little werewolf. Laundry’s all yours tonight.” He wipes his open palm on Remus’ neck in recompense, and then his cheek, smearing juice just below his lip; Remus flicks his tongue out and catches it, sour-sweet with the warm salt of skin underneath.

“I think you mean you will help me with laundry tonight. I think you mean you will hang my underwear on the line without making obscene comments.”

“It was one time. Three days ago. And I think I was actually being extremely complimentary, but some people just can’t get their pretty knickers to fit right on their bits and it makes them no fun at all.”

“I don’t know why I bother with you,” says Remus, sighing for effect. “I mean, fortunately, you’ve got your uses. You can hold groceries for me. You make nice sandwiches. I suppose it balances out.”

“You just want me to feed you.”

“Probably,” says Remus, bumping into him at regular intervals all the way up the hill. “Sorry, sorry. Gravity’s strong down here today.”

Sirius presses into his side, heavy, comfortable as summer on his winter skin, and Remus has to stop himself from reaching out to pull him closer. “There was a time in my life when I thought you weren’t an absolute bastard, you know. Still not sure why.”

“Scientists are still baffled,” says Remus. “If it makes you feel any better, I’ve always thought you were lovely. Even when you weren’t. At all.”

Lovely, is it,” Sirius drawls. His head crowns the sky when he turns to look at him, close, close, and for a moment, a slim, unspeakable moment, Remus thinks he’s going to kiss him.

He moves his hand, unsure of where to put it or whether he should even try. Sirius’ waist? His wrist? Shoulder? Four seconds pass. Five, six.

“What are we even going to do with that many blackberries?” Sirius asks him, looking away toward the bucket in Remus’ other hand which contains more blackberries than anyone—man, beast, bird, or insect—can feasibly eat. “Lure wildlife? Are you going to bake a pie? Are you going to bake your birds a pie?”

“Actually, yes,” says Remus, turning from him and tucking his hand safely into his side, and his disappointment with it. “We’ll just put them in a pie, like. That should take care of a good half of them. Shouldn’t it?”

Sirius’ face goes a little wobbly, stuck in some no man’s land between skeptical and amused. “You are going to bake a pie. You.”

“Ye-es,” he repeats, chancing a look over at Sirius again. He’s always been slightly shorter than Remus, and it’s absurd, he thinks, for his brain to act like he’s just realizing that for the first time, or to be so happy about the tilt of his head or his profile in sharp relief against the murky midmorning sky, stupid, stupid, absurd to love the way he still looks at him along the knife of his cheekbone, the new wry twist of his lips. “Oh, stop. You’ve got that look about the mouth. Don’t act like you don’t want pie, I remember what you did to my mum’s and James’, it was vile. You lunatic.”

“I’m willing to believe you learned a lot of things, in those twelve years,” Sirius says slowly, holding the door open for him, “but I’m not willing to believe you learned to bake. You can’t even handle cake. Charmed cake. From a box.”

“Well,” he sniffs, painting on his most indignant face, “you would be wrong, but that’s hardly surprising. Here, get that blue cookbook for me.”

Remus has this rule, that if it’s in a book (and especially if there are instructions in neat bulleted lists with whimsical illustrations), he can learn to do it, and if he can’t, then he can fake it convincingly. It’s how he learned to plant a garden, partly how he trained himself to wickedness to match the rest of them so long ago; it’s how he learned to mend jumpers and it’s also how he learned sex worked, until, blessedly, at seventeen, he discovered it was far more pleasant and a lot less degrading than those embarrassing mechanical diagrams of his mother’s with the knobby people and their strange bulbous noses let on. Today, though—today, in the middle of his third attempt to roll out the bottom pie crust without tearing it and get it into the pan the way the pictures detail so gracefully, the whole thing rips out at the middle and falls to the heavily floured countertop in disgrace, staring up at him in a pasty, lumpy plea, as if begging him to just let it die with the last gritty shreds of its dignity.

“Bugger,” he mutters, trying very hard not to smile at the poorly suppressed laughter coming from the kitchen table. “Oh, yes, yes, let’s laugh at Remus, it’s all fun and games until he slips cyanide in your tea, God knows you drink it with enough sugar you’d never notice.”

“I’m going to take this teabag out and slap you with it in about eight seconds.”

“None for you, then, none for you ever.”

“You are such a tosser,” Sirius informs him for the second time today. Remus thinks this might be the best day of his life. “You know, Lupin, if you wanted to impress me, you could’ve just dragged out the Firewhiskey and those argyle kneesocks of yours like a proper tart. Here, just—take it and flatten it down in there.”

“It’s torn and it’s not getting un-torn.”

“Doesn’t matter. See? It sort of looks like something that came out of Buckbeak but it’ll work.”

They fix the rest of it just as crudely, cut slits in the top to keep it from exploding, and by the time they’re done they’re pulling a pie that looks a little like a tumor out of the oven and having tea while they wait for it to cool. “So,” says Sirius, “how many of those did you make without me here holding your hand while you try not to cry? Dozens? Hundreds?”

“You’re going to hurt its feelings. It can hear you.”

I can hear you, and you sound like a nutter.”

“Shut up,” says Remus cheerfully.

“You’ve still got juice, on your—” On his cheek, apparently, because Sirius reaches over and swipes at it with his thumb, and Remus’ lungs forget how breathing works for a few seconds. He feels it all through the washing up, ghost sensations of this soft, tangible thing approaching intimacy in the way they angle their bodies at the sink, fingers brushing wrists and shoulders bumping shoulders, voices spilling out surprised and fluid. Sirius moves his body as if it’s his own, the waxy skin grown pliant, bone softened by flesh; Remus thrills at it, the way he moves, the way he washes the dishes, for Christ’s sake.

It’s pathetic. It’s insane. It’s beautiful.

“I like how you wash dishes,” Remus blurts out, idiotically. Sirius narrows his eyes.

“I’m still not doing your laundry.”

“Wasn’t asking. I’m sure you’d look very handsome folding my underwear though, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“My God, what’s wrong with you? Who the hell folds their underwear, is that a euphemism for something? ‘Sirius, please fold my underwear, also I would really like to see you out of yours,’ complete with that weird shifty-eye thing you do? Is that how you got that Lotte woman out of her knickers?”

“No, you arse. I know how to be subtle.”

“So do I,” says Sirius. “In fact I remember a certain young, anal-retentive werewolf who was so dense I had to repeat myself—five? Six times?—when I said I was going to block off the Floo and have a shower and—oh, you’re blushing—look at you, like an under-ripe tomato. I bet you were hoping I forgot about that.”

“Shows what you know. I was counting on it being brought up repeatedly.”

“Well, get used to it, Lupin. Because that’s not the only time you acted like a salted slug around me, and I remember every shameful display from at least fifteen onwards.”

Remus opens his mouth to argue that the whole thing was very new and very exciting at the time, and his stomach still hadn’t stopped flying up his throat whenever Sirius touched him that winter, everything a surprise, another joy to learn and love; the concept of sex in the shower hadn’t even entered his snog- and Sirius-addled brain until that very night, which he tries to tell him, but he’s interrupted by a sickening, meaty thump of knuckles knocking at his front door as his stomach here-and-now gets drop-kicked somewhere around his knees.

Aurors, the Ministry, God knows it’s not neighbors; he tries to wrap his voice up in impassivity and curses himself for forgetting to check the wards today as he squeezes Sirius’ wrist briefly, leaving him at the stairs and taking his wand out of his back pocket to hold like a blade behind his back. He doesn’t even remember the last visitor he had, other than Dumbledore; he thinks, wildly, that it was Andromeda Tonks about three years ago, with her—

“Remus, it’s all right—it’s just me. Well, us, actually, but you know me, at least,” comes a woman’s voice, high and bright, and he rests his forehead against the doorframe and feels relief surging over him like a safe blanket. “I know it’s been a while and I’m sorry to interrupt if you’re shagging each other within an inch of your lives in there, but I’ve wanted to see my cousin for weeks and I will climb in through the window if I have to, so I hope you’re decent, because that won’t stop me, either.”

“Hullo, Nymphadora,” he says after a long, weak breath, and opens the door.

All at once he’s being hugged stupid and senseless by a grinning, brown-eyed fuchsia bundle who smells rather like she’s spent the better part of the day in a bakery, or maybe several; when she lets go, she holds him at arm’s length and growls, with the dulcet reproach of a woman who’s got a litany of serrated, colorful hexes she’s itching to try on the first poor unfortunate who earns them, “Tonks.”

“So you are,” he croaks, rubbing his ribs and stepping aside to let her in, which is when he notices the other woman behind her, a preternaturally beautiful blonde who tips her head in his direction, hands clasped at her back and looking distinctly charmed, or possibly just politely folding her laughter away for later. Fear gives way to bewilderment, and bewilderment gives way to good manners, on autopilot even in the most thoroughly bizarre situations. “And, er, hello—”

“This is Fleur Delacour,” Tonks says, sounding admirably fluent in the lilt of her name. “She’s my—well, ma Fleur, my paramour, you know. Ma mignonne, mon petit croissant, ma loutre. All that. You would not believe the French I know, Remus, I’m really applying myself. Right?”

“You are a wonder,” says her petit croissant. “Now you are just—what did you call it?”

“Fishing.”

“Yes. You are fishing. It will go to your head.”

“Je vais pêcher pour toi,” says Tonks, grinning and grinning.

“Ridiculous woman. J'aime bien quand tu parles comme ça,” says Fleur Delacour in a voice like a stiletto dangling from curled toes. Remus is still confident enough in his French to not say a damn thing to that. “Hello, Remus Lupin. Tonks has told me about you. We will be seeing much of each other soon, yes?”

“I’m sure,” Remus says. Fleur has a very firm handshake, and she doesn’t stare at the scar running the length of his wrist to his elbow, where his sleeves are rolled up; she smiles softly at him, unrestrained, and he likes her already. “It’s lovely to meet you, I’m thrilled for you both, only I thought you were—let me just get Sirius out of the—”

But Sirius is already there, blinking at them like he’s trying to clear the dust and the ancient frost away, but it doesn’t take him long. “Dora?” he asks, wonderingly, and Tonks makes a cracked, quivery noise deep in her throat and crosses the room in roughly half a second to throw her arms around him. Sirius goes rigid and breathless for a moment, unsure of what to do with his own presence until something in him clicks, shudders, and falls into place: he laces both arms around Tonks’ waist, one hand splayed between her shoulderblades, his head tilting to the side to allow hers to nestle into his shoulder as if he is remembering, at last, how to expand and yield within himself to accommodate another breathing body. Eventually, he presses his nose into her hair and closes his eyes, and Remus feels himself an intruder, walled out, but it’s not until he knows she’s crying that he finally looks away from her shoulders shaking against Sirius’ chest, both of them so young and together and in love the way they used to be, like nothing’s changed at all.

He hasn’t held Sirius even once since that night in the Shrieking Shack a year ago, and he envies Tonks a little, that it’s so easy for her to do what he can’t when he’s been trying so hard for so long, when everything inside him yearns for it in all the spaces where they don’t touch, but maybe that’s what Sirius needs: someone brighter than a neon sign blaring away into the night who can knock him back into himself with all the force two arms can contain. Tonks kisses him on the cheek and buries her face in the crook of his neck, laughing wetly, and Remus doesn’t think he’s ever been happier for anyone or anything.

“I’ll make tea,” he says to Fleur, a little awkwardly. “Please—sit down, make yourself at home.”

“Oh. I will help you, I think,” Fleur decides, and then they’re in the kitchen, pulling Remus’ chipped mugs and tea bags from his cabinets while Fleur eyes his pie, and then him.

“I’ve never actually made a pie before,” Remus admits, feeling oddly humbled beneath that stare. “Just don’t tell him that.”

Fleur laughs, a bright peal of bells, grabbing some mismatched plates and a knife. “It is very English,” she says. “Yes. It reminds me of your awful weather. Just like pocket lint. It is good.”

He has no idea what she means but he really, really likes her.

“My God,” Sirius is saying, looking sideways at Tonks with something fierce and bright crinkling his eyes, “she wore nappies once. I changed them! And look at her, all pink and—adult.”

“I knew you were going to do that,” Tonks says. She can’t seem to stop looking at Sirius, but she leans up briefly when Fleur brings her tea and kisses the tip of her nose, hair falling into her face like shelter. Remus smiles and stares into the surface of his cup. “You always were a berk. But you’re still gorgeous, hey. I mean, look at you.”

“I don’t keep pepper imps in my pockets anymore, you know. Flattery will get you nowhere.”

“Like I was saying, you’re a berk,” she says. “And you’re talking to an Auror. Aren’t you shivery? Aren’t you just quaking in your—what are those, wool kneesocks? In July?”

“You didn’t say anything about his and they’re a travesty.”

“Yeah, but he’s always worn those things. You, though—this is just disappointing, Sirius, you’re practically domesticated. Next you’ll be drinking Darjeeling in the evenings and knitting your very own.”

“I’m learning from the best,” says Sirius, glancing over at him, his January eyes, his newest smile. “We’ll be a couple of sea sponges within the year if he has his way with me.”

“Shut it,” Remus mumbles, his smile hidden in his teacup, “I’m not that far gone yet.”

“I think you’re both a few macaroni noodles short of mental, actually. It’s cozy.”

“Jealousy looks terrible on you, Dora. I’m sure Mrs. Figg will make some socks for you if you ask nicely.” He cocks his head for a moment, considering. “ I’ve missed you very much.”

Tonks leans back into him again, her head pressed against his shoulder and Sirius blossoming beneath her, and Remus desperately wants to ask her for her secrets, her Normal, Well-Adjusted Human Being Secrets that no one’s ever seen fit to let him in on, but that would probably be weird, he thinks. It would definitely be weird.

They talk about the Ministry, and Sirius’ haircut, what Kingsley Shacklebolt has been up to these days, how much Sirius still owes Andromeda from an abysmal game of chess in 1979. Fleur tells them about her job at Gringotts, and France, and all the places she wants to live with Tonks, and Sirius seems to decide somewhere between the elegant swearing and the way she lets Tonks steal pie off her plate with a fond swat of her fork that she’s Good Enough for his cousin, and talks to her like he never forgot how to charm his way into the folds of young women’s robes. She says, “I am going to buy us a house in Lisle-sur-Tarn someday,” smiling like a woman with a secret and a plan, like she’s actually going to do it. Not if. Not when this is over. It’s just the solidity of a dream for her, no rumblings of a war, no acrid maybes. Remus was never that young, not even when he was.

“I’ll clean up,” he says, balancing plates in one hand and pie in the other. “There’s more tea, if you want it. I’ll be back.”

Outside, the sky has begun to unfurl in smoky grey and lemon at the horizon, threaded with pinpricks of stars in the shadowy rifts between the clouds and the moon hidden but for the distant ache in his fingers. Here, the war still seems far-off, some silent gathering of invisible storm clouds. It would all feel unreal were it not for Dumbledore’s letters reminding him what finely honed weapons they are; it’s like a bad dream snared in his mind, so easy to forget over breakfast and so easy remember in the throat of the night when there’s nothing but the dark and the sound of your heart in your ears, suffocating, choking you with every dead word you’ve ever said, or not said.

“Hallo, as you say.”

Fleur closes the kitchen door with a quiet clink and comes to sit beside him on the steps, her dress pooling around her in a lilac wave. “I thought I’d give them a bit,” he tells her. “I think they need it.”

“You are a good man,” says Fleur, patting his knee. “A good man. Good intuition you have.” She reaches into her dress pocket and takes out a pack of cigarettes, offering one to Remus. He takes it, lets her light it under his nose and watches the tip catch orange-hot when he inhales, realizes he doesn’t even remember the last time he did this, but he does remember the first: Behind the broomshed, high scythe moon dangling wicked-sharp over the red trees, sixteen with grazed knees, and he’d started coughing when Sirius and James hadn’t, like they’d done it a thousand times before. Probably, they had.

Moony, Remus, light of my life, fire of all things above and below my belt but especially below, you sound like a fucking asthmatic house-elf, Sirius said, and he plucked it out of his fingers as Remus felt his eyes sting with water. Like this, you buttoned-up Prefect. He put it in his mouth and sucked it in, held it full in his lungs and then blew it out in a crisp, thin stream under his nose while Remus watched. James lit another; Peter, at his feet, stared at the tip, lit and smoking away.

Sirius put it back between his lips, his fingers making a soft V against Remus’ mouth, rough and ink-stained. This time, Remus breathed it in, willowy and sticky-sweet, sharper than spice, and then exhaled, watched it flow out of his mouth in a white current as Sirius held his eyes in the dark.

That badge hasn’t rendered you shriveled and useless yet, he said, his back against the wall, knees spread wide, elbows on his thighs. See, Potter. If I didn’t know better I’d swear he’s been holding out on us. God knows what he gets up to in that Prefects’ bathroom.

God knows I want to know what he gets up to, said James, grinning down at him like a loon, the moon reflected in his glasses, in his eyes. Peter laughed; James mussed up his hair and Remus didn’t bother to fix it, left it that way all night and into the next morning.

I’m a fast learner, said Remus, his voice coarse with smoke, I thought you’d know that by now.

Are you, said Sirius, and his eyes caught on Remus’ in the dark, sudden and unexplainable in a way they had never been before. He licked his lips when he looked away and tasted salt—tasted Sirius, breathed him in until he stuck in his lungs.

“This is very—romantic, yes? Idyllic,” Fleur is saying, her voice a chime to signal awakening. Remus takes another drag and looks at her, spreading both hands out against the darkening slope of his backyard, cigarette caught between the long fingers of her left hand. “You have a lovely spot here, though so quiet. You picked it because of this?”

“Oh, no,” says Remus. “It was my parents’, actually. My mother left it to me.” He doesn’t tell her that he could never have afforded even this little sliver of earth on his own, but he suspects she might know that much already. “You and Tonks are going to have a nice place in Devonshire, it sounds like. I like the sea.”

“You will come visit us,” she says. It isn’t a question, and Remus can’t really argue with the gentle inflexibility of her voice, all flint and honey. “You and Sirius. When this is over. When he is, what is it, excuse? Pardon? Pardoned. When he is pardoned. Or before, maybe. No one has to know.”

“If we make it out of this, then yes. Of course we will.”

Fleur turns to him and takes a drag of her cigarette, blows the smoke out her nose. “You English men,” she mutters in her low, silvery tones, shaking her head like she’s not nearly half Remus’ age, “you English men.”

“I can’t help it,” says Remus, shrugging. “I’m still feeling the first one. And we might—we might not. You know.”

“You might not. And? Do you live your whole life sitting on fences? It must hurt.”

“English men, Fleur. English men are all like that.” English werewolves, more specifically. But.

“As dreary as your weather,” she says, but she’s smiling at him; at least she grants him his honesty. “But you should not think that way. You say, maybe we don’t make it out of this, you already give something up. You see? So, maybe you don’t make it out of this. Maybe a, a meteor falls on your house tonight and you don’t make it to tomorrow morning. Boom,” she says, fluttering her fingers expressively, “no more Remus Lupin. No more English pie.”

Remus takes another drag and says nothing, watching the nightbirds swoop between the trees down the hill, blackness into blackness over the smudged horizon. Sirius will need his hair cut soon.

“But it is useless to think that way, yes?” says Fleur. “There is war, and there are explosions, and there are dragons, and there is Scottish cooking, but there is also you. Life is fleeting always, and it is transient. That is my favorite word,” she confides, exhaling through her nose again. It curls around her legs and sinks, invisible, into the air. “That is why you take the seasons as they come. That is why you let flowers grow up between the cracks in things. That is why you make pie even though you do not know how.”

Her eyes have a way of making him feel very foolish, very naked, and very painfully English. Remus has a feeling most men would tremble beneath a courage like hers, the audacity to take your own future and cleave to it even when there’s nothing else. “You never said how you met Tonks,” he says, blowing out smoke in a thin grey stream.

She laughs, stretching her legs out down the steps, loose with happy memories. “It was last year. We visited your Ministry, before the Tournament, and I talked to her, but mostly it was for her hair. I said I might like to be an Auror, and I wanted to speak better English also, so she said to write her, and I did. For most of the year.” She pushes her hair back from where it’s fallen across her shoulder, bright as a flame at dusk, and watches the birds for a moment. “When I went to see her, she fell down the stairs.”

Remus finds this new development about as surprising as he finds oatmeal and Earl Grey; he imagines about half of England’s Wizarding population, female and male, have tripped over their own toenails to hear this woman sneeze, which is actually a bit uncomfortable when he thinks on it. Fleur, as if sensing exactly which pastures his thoughts have run so aimlessly towards, flicks the ash off her cigarette and says, “Marble stairs.”

“Ah,” says Remus.

“She told me about you, and Sirius, and the others, who will be working with us. With the Order,” she says. “But she did not say how handsome you are,” she adds slyly, “or Sirius Black. Even after Aza-Azkaban. I am sorry, your words are so horrible, sometimes, they have no flow.”

“He’s always been infuriating like that,” says Remus. “If nothing else, he lands on his feet.”

“I think,” she says, “I think we can look out for each other. The four of us, yes? I do not understand everything. But we are similar, you and me. In some things.”

It’s a little disconcerting to think of himself as anything like Fleur Delacour, his mismatched socks, his monstrous blood, but here it is: both of them not quite here and not quite there, in a world that thinks in either/or. “It is not the same thing, exactly,” she says quickly, “not at all. But I see, yes? People are afraid of me. And when they aren’t, men are acting always like I owe them something. And everyone is fine with hating me.”

“You start feeling like you’re a sort of half-… a half-thing. Like you don’t fit anywhere.”

“And people act like everything you do is because, because of that. ‘Oh, she is confident. She thinks she is stronger than most men and twelve times as attractive! She is a Veela, what did you expect, how immodest, let’s talk about her like she is a very stupid aubergine and cannot hear you.’ But it is much worse for you.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, we had to write an essay once—fourth year, I think—about werewolf identification. I learned that we apparently have an insatiable hunger for chicken liver all the time, and we’re not to be trusted around livestock or small children. Our blood and saliva is also toxic at any time of the month. Just being in the same room as us can turn you into a filthy, slobbering monster.”

“When do I get to the urge to kill a chicken? Is it after the ugly pie baking? Or the mismatched socks?” she asks, poking his toe with her sandal. He’s always been protective of them, these frayed, mismatched pairs of things, darned jumpers, a Muggle camera with a charmed lens, James’ clear, bold voice snagging on his own posh, soft voice, the burnt-out parts of family tapestries. Fleur’s strappy sandals look new and expensive; her feet and ankles are very large and extremely bony, and not at all in a delicate way. She smiles when she sees him looking.

“Just wait for it,” he says, grinning back at her, “it’ll happen sometime between the uncontrollable chewing and the need for depraved, violent sex.”

“Last I heard, some arses in your Ministry were still lobbying to keep non-humans and part-humans from marrying. Werewolves, too.”

“Tonks really is broadening your vocabulary, isn’t she.”

“I know all the good words,” she says. “They work well here, with these people. I am good at it.”

“There’s always at least a few,” says Remus, snubbing his cigarette on the concrete. “And even the, ah, good and enlightened among us sometimes have similar feelings, they’re just sometimes quieter about it. And no one ever cares.”

“When this is over, I think we will go visit your Minister. Sirius can come too, and Tonks will get us—what is it?”

“An audience? Security clearance? Not arrested?”

“The second one,” she says. “We will make demands. And he looks so terrible in green, I need to tell him so.” She smiles, standing to crush her cigarette under her heel. “Do you think we have been long enough? I think so. Come, inside.”

She offers her hand and Remus lets her pull him up, watching her hair swing back and forth like a pendulum as they walk inside together.

Tonks looks like she’s been crying again, and he suspects Sirius may have been, too, but they’re both laughing and bent close, almost, almost like they used to be so long ago. When Tonks was small, Andromeda used to bring her over to their flat to visit of an afternoon or for free babysitting and the unloading of malicious internal monologues the way only Blacks can compose them: hour-long, brimming with more musty melodrama than a Brontë novel, and curse inventions brilliant enough to turn your togs purple. Sirius would let her eat too much ice cream and whisper bite-sized conspiracies in her ear when her mother couldn’t hear; Remus kept crayons stocked just for her and Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss on the bookshelf for both of them. He remembers Sirius’ vast, dazzling presence, the way he was always so easy with her, and seethes in quiet resentment at the world and at himself.

After—well, after everything, Andromeda stopped bringing her around so much; things got loud and then slimmed to silence, and then they bled out at the edges, and Remus was glad for it, that he didn’t have to be reminded of Sirius, and Harry, and everything he was never going to have again every time she knocked on his door. Then he stopped seeing much of Andromeda at all with the stretch of the years, and even now, he couldn’t say what Tonks’ favorite color is, or even her birthday, which he used to know; here, now, with Tonks leaning up to kiss Sirius’ cheek in his sitting room, he knows he’s watching a woman who became a woman while he wasn’t looking and should have been, and he feels more or less an ass.

“Don’t you dare go and get yourself locked up ever again,” she says fiercely into Sirius’ chest on the way out, as fiercely as he’s ever heard her say anything. “I’ll dig you out and then I’ll have to kill you myself for ruining my career. You berk.”

“Yes, yes, woof woof,” says Sirius. His hand covers the back of her head, tangled up in pink. “I’ll owl you wherever I roam, with a wistful postcard if there’s one to be had.”

“You’re not roaming. You’re staying here and practicing your humanitarianism, or your sonnet-writing. Or something.”

“Or something,” Sirius agrees. “Look, I’ll sit here and knit you some damn socks since you’re so jealous of Mrs. Figg’s lust for my feet. If I knit you socks will you stop turning your head tomato? Will that be satisfactory? Very dry-toast-and-tea, you can tell your mum I’m a changed man. Would you stop, I liked the fuchsia.”

“I’ll see you soon, you absolute twat,” she promises, letting go. “And you,” she says, turning to Remus and knocking her knuckles gently against his cheek, “try not to be such a stranger. Write us, both of you.”

“I’ll try,” he says, and he even means it.

Fleur kisses Sirius on the cheek, and then Remus, reaching down to squeeze his hand between her own on the way out. “It is summer,” she whispers. “Remember not to rush the winter so very much, Remus. Wear something red.”

“Most of my red comes in jumpers,” he says, smiling. She snorts; it is very French, and very endearing even in its nasally inelegance.

“Don’t act like you don’t know,” she admonishes, her head lifted high in challenge, in triumph. “À bientôt. Oh, that sounds so much better,” she says, and she’s out the door with Tonks. He watches them for a moment, down the walk and into the lane, Fleur with her palm pressed into Tonks’ waist as if it’s all that’s all that matters or ever will. Their hands on each other, their promises.

“Well,” says Sirius, looking somewhere over Remus’ shoulder, “someone’s done well for herself.”

“She has.” The smell of dog roses gusts in when he shuts the door, powdery-pink and soft as rain. It’s a small but solid comfort: no matter what else is happening, there will still be dog roses. “She’s missed you. So much.”

Sirius, as expansive as flames or smoke for a few moments with Tonks, sits down on the couch and runs his fingers through his hair, suddenly a narrow slip of a man again, gone grief-quiet and small. “She was telling me about the yellow toilets in the Hufflepuff girls’ dormitory,” he says, “like I hadn’t been in there before. And the farm. And her flat. And now she’s—and she’s got a—got a—”

“A croissant?” Remus offers.

“Yes,” says Sirius, staring down at his hands between his knees, “that. She’s gone and got herself a croissant, and a house in Devonshire. And I missed that. I missed all of it.”

There’s a smudge of blackberry still staining his trousers right above his knee, and he wonders if Sirius might bloom out and brighten again for him if he just reached out and touched it, but he knows that’s not where it hurts. Remus isn’t sure he can reach where it hurts, back a thousand years, overgrown with thorns and sawblade teeth. “You don’t have to miss it anymore,” he says.

Sirius watches the shadows creeping along the hallway and across the floor, flexing the lonely ridges of his fingers, in and out, in and out, just like breathing, both his hands exhausted and heavy with the effort of trying to spin himself to life between them. “I’m so tired,” he says, “I’m just—I’m fucking tired,” tipping his head back against the couch, closing his eyes, and Remus just sits there at the other end, his palms sunken into the distant spaces between them, sorrow-heavy, thinking about touching him.

“Remus,” says Sirius, quill in hand and eyes moving along his long parchment, “I don’t know what you’re doing over there, but it’s definitely not a good look for you, mate.”

“How dare you. I happen to know that this cardigan accentuates the awkward bulges of my fragile masculinity.”

“Is it the one you’ve had since you were twenty? That James liked you in? No,” Sirius looks up from the table where he’s been writing letters all afternoon—Harry, Andromeda, Tonks and Fleur, now one to Dumbledore he says is unimportant and Remus is trying not to worry about as he preserves these tender, delicate memories on the cheapest film he could find in the village. “But that’s definitely the same camera you had when you were twenty. Would you please quit staring, it’s making me all jumpy and even I don’t trust myself around the inkwells.”

“Maybe I just like your face,” says Remus, and Sirius smiles, unbidden and secret, and Remus burns and freezes with it all at once, as in love.

“Then keep it up, by all means. Maybe I’ll even unbutton for you.”

Remus shakes his head, sunlight gliding into the back of his neck from the window, sweeping away the shadows from his skin. “That almost sounds… sexual.”

“Look at you over there, just dying for it,” says Sirius, grinning at him now as Remus does the same, holds the moment between his teeth and swallows it with the tealeaves at the bottom of his cup. “You’ll grow out of this someday, Lupin. Always one toenail from the gutter with you, and me having to suffer through the innuendo and immaturity. Unbelievable.”

“Poor thing,” he says lightly. “And you suffered so vigorously, too. It’s almost like it’s half your fault in the first place.”

“It’s always half yours, too,” laughs Sirius. “Same fucking difference.”

“Oh, Pads, you’re such a man, such a big, strong tosser. Write that down.”

“Already did, actually,” Sirius mumbles. “Uncanny.”

“Underline it.”

Sirius presses the quill against his bottom lip, trying to look angry and superior but betrayed by the crook of his mouth, the unwavering eyes. “You know, people only think you’re not a monumental knob because they’ve never seen how you behave in your natural habitat. Or what you wear, I mean—Christ, Moony, has anyone else even seen you in that thing?”

“I don’t need critique from a man with a cobweb in his hair.”

“Thought you might appreciate it.” Sirius pulls his fingers through his hair before he gives up and shakes it loose. With the attraction to the dust, and what have you.”

“And dog fur, apparently,” he mutters, pulling a few coarse black hairs—Padfoot fur, unmistakably—out of a button-hole.

“Might have slept in it, the other night,” says Sirius, eyes down on his parchment again, and Remus fists a hand in the yellow hem and doesn’t, doesn’t fall apart.

“I’ve actually had this one since Christmas of 1977,” says Remus, pulling at one of the loose stitches near the elbow, “which is incidentally the same year James caught me under the mistletoe on purpose.”

“Yeah, but he didn’t get his tongue in your mouth.”

“How do you know he didn’t?”

“Because he’d have never shut up about it,” says Sirius, laughing brightly. “It was one thing to snog me, he did that plenty. But there was a time he’d have had a proper go at you too, Moony. You remember what he was like, when he found out I’d taken every bit of steely virtue you had in one solid week from Christmas hols to—”

“More like two, actually. You overextended yourself.”

“Whatever. Overextended you, more like. Anyway, you remember him. One public humiliation away from finally getting in with Evans, and he’s demanding to know what it’s like to shag you, in explicit detail. Which I provided.”

Remus remembers and he remembers well, because he was there for the entire mortifying, hilarious thing, stumbling out of Sirius’ bedroom completely naked and looking thoroughly, utterly fuck-stupid only to find James sitting on the couch with a piece of sponge cake, and because he also knows—as he’s always known—that as much as James and Lily were made for each other, there was a part of James that was always deeply, somewhat inappropriately in love with his friends and all the gangly limbs as much as they were with him, and with each other.

It makes him hurt, the soreness of it giving way to the ravenous grip of longing and then to old, exhausted wisps of memory, propelling him suddenly up the stairs and down again, spelling the dust off a box long tucked away into obscurity, and when Sirius sits beside him and starts taking things out, Remus sends up a prayer to Merlin and Yeats and every saint whose name he doesn’t know that this was the right thing to do and they’re not going to burst at the seams when they see their fifteen-year reflections smiling back at them through the unfathomable gulf of the years.

And, miraculously, they don’t.

There are blank spaces between some of the photos where Remus sent a few—mostly duplicates—to Hagrid several years ago when he wrote asking for some to give to Harry, but other than that, they are exactly as they always were, these watercolor echoes in stilted time. Sirius, nineteen years old, makes pasta at their matchbox stove with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a too-short shirt riding up his skinny hips when he reaches up for one of the cluttered pots hanging by a nail; in another, Lily kisses Remus wetly on the cheek and points and laughs at Sirius from her perch on the sofa. They go through life undisturbed, unchanged, unknowing of anything but then and there, and Remus supposes that’s the trouble with old photos: you can never get away from where you’ve been.

So, he starts to slip more of them in wherever he can, whenever they fit. New ones he takes when Sirius is writing at the kitchen table or drinking tea, in the middle of a violent sneeze that’s taken him by surprise, eating biscuits, in the garden just after he’s had his hair cut; he’s not especially eager for it, exactly, but he doesn’t move to hide his face behind cereal boxes or snap at Remus for trying the way he might have done only a few months ago, doesn’t try to smother his smile when it breaks to the surface.

One night, just after dinner, Sirius grabs the camera from him in the backyard where they’re pulling weeds by the pear tree and yanks him over by the elbow until their hips collide sharply, shoulder to shoulder, blood to blood, saying, “Look, you prick, you don’t have to do that stupid wobbly-eye thing every time you take a picture, it’s making me all squirmy. The lens is charmed. You don’t even have to look in it, see?”

Click, click.

“I don’t do anything with my eye,” he argues. Sirius points the camera at him and takes about twelve photos, chronicling a rapid shift from stunned to amused to irritated to soft and soppy at the mouth, and doing a very poor job of hiding it. “I’m getting perspective, you just don’t understand photography. Here, give me that, you’re making me look like the back of a public toilet.”

“You always look like that after you’ve had shepherd’s pie. I happen to find it—ouch, that’s a very tender—I find it extremely appealing.”

“Well, you’ve always been a complete nutter, who knows what fluffs your feathers. But I need your cheekbones on photo paper right now. For posterity.”

“Keep you warm on your cold, lonely nights devoid of meaning and hot, hot manflesh, more like,” says Sirius, his smile turned wicked-wild on Remus, the lines of his body loose, an electric-kinetic jangle of energy in the last of the yielding evening light. It is a new thing, that smile, and Remus even has one to match now, slipping onto his lips like sunrise whenever Sirius laughs or swear, or when he watches him chew his Muggle ballpoint over the crossword in the mornings. It does incredible, worrying things to his stomach that his stomach hasn’t done in more than a decade, heats the blood red at his cheeks, and he figures, if nothing else, Sirius Black has always been a fantastic workout for his internal organs; he can see Sirius’ pulse humming in his throat under the burgeoning flush of the sun, feel his own too, singing, singing in his veins.

“I’ve got blankets,” he says. “Scads of them. I know how to keep myself warm.”

Do you,” says Sirius, and that—that is a new smile, too, and beautiful.

“I could get a dog, I suppose, but that’d feel a lot like cheating.”

“Oi, that’s because it would be. You throw me off for another dog and I’ll return the favor.”

“Oh, don’t worry your indecent head,” says Remus, wiping the lens, “I’m awfully fond of the newspaper shreddings.”

Sirius laughs, reaching over to pluck a twig off Remus’ shoulder, the skin beneath his shirt heating and thrumming like a staccato. “Bad habit.”

“I like all your bad habits,” says Remus, and feels his whole body lit like the gauzy summer sun, cotton-sweet, and nothing, he thinks, nothing has ever felt this new, this young.

He puts that first photo Sirius took of them on the mantel, in an old, cheap maple frame that’s long sat empty in the end table drawer, lifeless beneath a detritus of grief and lost jobs and late payment notices, and he watches them there, sometimes, the smiles they coax from each other’s lips, turning towards each other whenever they speak. Sirius reaches over to brush some imaginary dust from his hair, laughing, leaning into the white glare of the sun to curl an arm around his shoulder, their paper roots unwinding and his eyes on Remus’ eyes, heedless of anything but themselves, and suddenly they are so close.

They are so close.

A narrow routine settles into them like a warm front, slamming full-force through Remus’ house and insinuating itself in their morning tea, their half-arguments, the creases of their clothes, the nights they spend up together, later and later all the time; they stitch themselves through this unsteady time in these steady ways, and Remus falls a little in love with the rhythm of it, the way they take hold of each other, of the solidity.

Sirius is never in the house when he wakes up. He’ll look out the kitchen window and find him sitting under the oak, the branches murmuring in the wind, sometimes with a book, sometimes asleep with evergreen and thistle in his hair; sometimes, he won’t be around at all, and he’ll sit down with a cup of tea and wait for Padfoot to paw at the kitchen door, wanting only to be let inside early in the afternoon. Remus never asks where he goes, and Sirius never tells.

In the evenings, their hands are busy being empty, fisted in pockets, clasped between knees, spread out flat on the table; it’s an acute sort of awareness, how Remus is always thinking about his hands the way you sometimes realize you’re breathing manually, and then his whole sense of equilibrium topples over into the coffee table and won’t settle in again until he’s run his knuckles along Sirius’ wrist or bumped his hip at the kitchen sink and the hallway a few times like ballast.

He’s lugging in a few ripped paper bags full of groceries in the midafternoon haze while the wind blows his hair unhelpfully into his eyes when he finds Sirius wrenching apart his wall clock on the sofa, staring intently at the copper curve of the spindle and the immaculate click-hush-click of the wheels whirring away underneath, and Remus forgets to ask why the bloody hell he couldn’t be bothered to open the door. It’s an old Muggle thing with a dusty quartz face, a constant fixture that his mother must have bought years and years ago, one of those things you never question because it’s just there, as much a part of the house as the flaking plaster and the creaking foundation. There’s nothing interesting about it, no grand, ancient spells to tell your fortune or your tragedies like you’d find in most other Wizarding houses. Only the brutal softness of time, measured out in quiet turns.

“Dismantling time itself today, are we?”

“Mm. Never really looked at Muggle clocks much before, actually,” says Sirius, nudging one of the wheels with his forefinger. He used to do this all the time, just take things apart for the sake of seeing the meat underneath, the clink of steel swelling, deflating, churning, the cold metal heartbeat of a Muggle machine in itself a little like magic. “No little hands to tell them when the children are getting sloshed or whether you’ll need your lucky red underwear today. Muggles, Moony, they’ve got their priorities on straight and no mistake.”

“All left to chance and yesterday’s laundry,” Remus agrees, putting away bread and potatoes and apples that have already gone a bit off. “What’re you doing? I’ll have you know I’ve got half a dozen very important appointments tomorrow I’m going to miss because of you.”

“Is that a plea for me to keep you occupied? Because I can keep you occupied,” he says, taking one of the wheels off and setting it aside before he starts on another, turning it in his long, spindly fingers. They don’t shake the way they used to, not even when they’re reaching for Remus to fill in all their gaps. “I’m trying to charm it, if you must know.”

“What for?”

He frowns down at one of the clock pins, running over it with his fingernail before settling on a different one and adjusting it just slightly, one nestled into another. “So it tells Remus time, too. Might be useful for someone.”

Click-hush-click, goes the clock; thumpthumpthumpthump, goes Remus’ heart. “And what’s that?”

“I mean, you’re always up in the night. Always went with the moon, before, looks like it does now too. Except more often.” He picks up a needle lying on the table and makes a new hand, drags his wand along the silver from pinpoint to pinpoint as it inflates itself like a balloon, slimmer and longer than the minute hand, glimmering opalescent in the light. “So you ought to have something to tell you when you’re in mortal danger or need a good shag and a mug of cocoa. That sort of thing.”

“You don’t have to,” says Remus, very softly. “I manage.”

“Yeah, well. Who else is going to bark at you about it—yes, laugh, I’m very funny and I know it—who else is going to bark at you about it if I’m not here to do it?”

“Are you going to spell my clock to bark at me?”

“No, you great nancing night-beast, I’m going to spell it to administer a sound beating when you need it.”

Remus sits down, careful not to disturb the growing copper-green smatterings of gears and wheels on the coffee table. The inside of the clock is still churning, even without half of its bits and bats in place; he has the strange feeling of watching a heart beating in reverse, its private red secrets exposed, a thousand, thousand hours flowing back in on themselves, over and over and over. The same second hand clicked away his mother’s life, brought Sirius and James by way of air when he was sixteen; the same notches in the wheels saw twelve years of himself pass to rust and ash, saw everything in him shock and galvanize with Sirius again with the turning of the seasons. On the mantel, inside their square maple home, Sirius rests his head against Remus’ and closes his eyes, breathing out of time with the waking world.

It’s inexorable, he thinks, all the things time whittles away when you aren’t listening. All the things it builds in those minutes, when you don’t notice it moving you.

“I’m fairly certain you need a lock of my hair or something to accomplish that. Or blood. Are you going to suck my blood?”

“You’re really opening yourself up for that one, mate.”

“And you’re trying so hard,” says Remus, laughing his warmest laugh, the one Sirius is learning to pull out of him, the one he loves best. “It’s a shame I don’t have any biscuits for you, I feel like it shouldn’t go unrewarded. But honestly, Pads, how?”

“I took a skin sample while you were sleeping last night,” says Sirius.

“That was rude. You could have just asked if you wanted to see me in the altogether.”

“Mm. Nothing says sex like Remus Lupin’s flannel pyjamas in the middle of July,” he says. “But no, really, you shed like a—well, a werewolf. I found no fewer than five hairs on the couch that have been put to use tracking your every movement.” Sirius holds his finger over one of the wheels, unending in its forward motion even with the added weight of his skin and bone. “Owl for you, by the way. From Dumbledore.”

“I’ll read it later,” says Remus. “Anything else?”

“Harry wrote,” Sirius tells him. “Wishes he could come stay. Wishes Dumbledore would tell him anything. Wishes a lot of things.”

“How does he sound?”

“Miserable.”

“Yes,” he says, softly, “I was afraid so.”

He wants Harry here, wants him as much as he knows Sirius does, and he knows logically why they can’t but logic doesn’t count for much when you’ve got so much love pent up inside you that you never got the chance to spend. It aches like history, everything that’s been done to him and all the things he should have done so long ago reverberating with the bite of every stale regret that jolts him out of sleep in the night, a fourteen-year car crash of grief and guilt he’s still trying to shake from his bones.

“You know, you never told me,” says Sirius, not looking up from the gear he’s fitting back onto its narrow pin, “did you like being a professor? I mean, you were a professor. You.”

“You’re going to spend the rest of your life making fun of me.”

“No, no, you arse, I just still can’t believe it. Well, I can, but you never were much for discipline, is what I meant. Or following rules.”

“Excuse you,” says Remus, his lips twitching up at both corners. “I read the rules before I broke them. Remember? I knew how to be discreetly illegal.”

“Took a lot of points, did you.”

“No, actually—actually, now that I think about it, I’m fairly sure I took more as a Prefect,” he says, watching the scar on Sirius’ ring finger flit over the dismantled clock bits, fluid as waves.

“You took points from me for besmirching your honor. Don’t think I’ve forgotten.”

“Because you did. You dragged my good name through the mud, you sullied my—”

“You were the slag who pushed me under that stairwell in the first place.”

“Yes, and then I missed Potions because of it, and I’ve always thought Slughorn suspected and you have no idea how that still makes my insides heave.”

Sirius laughs at him, loose, unrestrained, and Remus—well, he’s never thought himself a particularly soppy man in spite of the poetry and the photos and the nostalgia stitched into his trousers and the hopes stuck to the roof of his mouth, but it’s fucking incredible how the rest of the world fades out and becomes so utterly, utterly unimportant when he can make Sirius do that, these moments when they both catch and flare like the July-heavy heat, the world narrowed to their fingers, their voices. “I didn’t tell you this,” says Remus, “but there was a boggart, in an old staff wardrobe at the start of my term. It ended up—well, Snape, dressed in Frank Longbottom’s mum’s clothes.”

By the time he’s finished, Sirius is gaping, clock bits forgotten, and Remus is about to ask if he’s given him a stroke when his face shifts in that crinkly way Remus loves: it starts in the eyes, brightening, widening, and then shivers down to his mouth, dissolving into long, bold laughter, louder than Remus’, louder than the ticking clock. Louder than anything.

“I know what I’m getting you for your birthday,” says Sirius, still staring at him wildly, reverently, “and it starts with blow and ends in job.”

Remus says something, something roughly like, “Ggggnrrkk,” which—considering that if he listens closely, he can hear one half of his brain snapping soundly in two—is a strikingly accurate approximation of his feelings, but Sirius doesn’t hear it for the laughter that keeps welling up in his mouth, and that’s fine enough with him.

“You were brilliant, weren’t you,” he says softly, pressing something blue-warm around the edges of the clock until it sinks into the white and glows, mercury-slick, above the Roman numerals.

“Not really,” says Remus, and he knows it’s true enough. He was irresponsible, foolish, spent both terms half-hoping for a glimpse of a murderer in the corridors; probably, he wasn’t stern enough, didn’t challenge his students enough, wasn’t honest enough—as if there was ever any doubt about that. “It wasn’t—I mean, I did like it. It was nice to make money for a change, and I liked the students, and I liked seeing them learn. Knowing that I taught them all that, it was—well, I think that was the best part.”

Sirius fumbles over the new hand he made, catches it between his fingers like it’s made of glass. Maybe it is. “But you wouldn’t do it again?” he asks. His thigh brushes against Remus’ on the couch, and then his knee when he shifts to pick something up.

Remus stares down at his hands between his knees, his sweater sleeves rolled up to his elbows like armor. “I don’t know,” he says. “I always thought I’d love it when I was sixteen and McGonagall pulled my soul out of my eye sockets and pinned it to some corkboard, but then you grow up and it’s real and you have to do it every day and then it’s ten years later and you’re not sure how you feel about it anymore. I think I’d try it again.” He presses his thigh closer to Sirius’, and how warm they are, how lovely they are, together. “I’d like to do it right.”

“No,” says Sirius, “you were nine kinds of amazing. I’ve heard all I need to know about you, Professor Lupin.”

“Harry is biased and so are you.”

“Maybe.” He fits the new hand onto the face, turns the clock over again, turns it upside-down. “Maybe Hagrid will take me in as his hippogriff-wrangler, whenever we come out the other side of this.”

“You were an Auror,” says Remus, quietly. “You could go back, you know. You’re as brilliant as you ever were—I mean that, Sirius.”

“Only way I’d ever work for this Ministry again is if they scrubbed pretty much everything from the ground up and, y’know, got rid of absolutely everyone in charge. Maybe drop them in the North Sea for a bit. So. Not bloody likely.” He turns the clock in his hands, upside-down; his fingernails are worn to uneven nubs, dried blood caked under the thumb of his left hand. “It’s a long way off, anyway.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I know loads of things,” says Sirius, knocking his thigh into Remus’. “I know that you’re going to go make me tea. I know that you’re going to get all flappy when I forget my clothes in the shower and drip all down the hallway. I know I like you an awful lot, considering.”

“Poor dear, you’re really struggling, aren’t you.”

“You’re a tyrant, Lupin. I’ll be launching the rebellion any day now, probably after tea when you’re too stuffed with scones to care.” He grins, and Remus grins back, something light and pleasant crackling inside him, like ball lightning shivering through a cloud. He watches him work for a while, watches the movements of his fingers, the teeth peeking out over his lower lip; Sirius still has the longest eyelashes he’s ever seen on anyone, always tangling together at the corners, and Remus wants so much to kiss them, wants to feel them flutter against his face, shock them open—love him bare.

If he wanted to, he could lean over and rest his head in the crook of Sirius’ neck, breathe him in like summertime rain: he’d press his nose into the skin there, feel his heart trip and quicken as his lips fall along the blade of his collarbone, and he’d smell like wet bark, wet earth, warm skin, the fresh cotton-soft crispness of his shirt from the laundry. And he thinks about it. He thinks about it a lot. Remus spends so much time thinking about it that Remus almost jumps out of his trousers when Sirius rests his hand on his knee, soft as something carved from memory, the sunlight melting, flowing there with his blood.

He thinks he would peel himself raw for this, just that one touch. He would burn himself from the inside out to keep Sirius’ hand curled against the soft, worn denim of his jeans.

There are, on the whole, a lot of things Remus Lupin doesn’t understand. Cigars. Distressed jeans. Novelty bookmarks, the appeal of cold soups. Spaghetti squash, the mechanics of pastry dough, fun-sized anything, pencils, potions, Austromarxism, the general concept of thermal underwear. But this—this, he knows.

There is loving as if it is a duty, something of an uncomplicated, teachable skill you can apply to everything from your job to your extended family to Brussels sprouts and the morning sun bleeding through your curtains to greet you a good half-hour before your alarm goes off and you’ve got no chance to sleep for the extra hour you want. There is comfort in that, peace, stability. It is a small, glowing lantern in the middle of the night. It keeps you upright.

And there is loving because it is unstoppable. There is loving because it is the only thing your heart knows how to do with that fire burning in your gut, because it beats inside you like a second pulse. There is loving until you are hurting with it, starving with it, flooded through with it like a river overflowing. It springs up inside you like a wound, full of the hot electric blood shared between you, hiding in the hollow of your throat and the curl of your spine and the boxes in your attic, under your bed. It plays havoc with your nervous system, stands in line at the pharmacy with cold medicine and chocolate bars. It reaches out for you in the deepest and darkest nights, strange, beautiful, frightening creature burning with history and memory and promise, living in your sugar bowl and your open window, whispering, I won’t leave you here alone.

Remus knows this, knows it as emphatically as he’s ever known anything that matters, just as well as he knows Sirius’ knuckles rubbing comfortably beneath the rough weight of his palm, the shape of their knees pressed together, their walls, their angles. For maybe the first time in his life, Remus thinks, he understands both of them. He knows what he wants; he knows where he wants to go.

“You know what I think?” asks Sirius, setting the clock down on the coffee table. It works the same as before, but the new hand he made, its pearly arrow gleaming milky-smooth in the late afternoon lull, stays fixed over the twelve, advising him to Stop Moping And Have A Sandwich, You Professional Sea Sponge. “I think you should give it another go. Teaching. You know, after this is all over and I can buy a new motorbike with the Ministry’s bribe money and drive you to work every morning, Mrs. Black.”

“You think so, do you,” says Remus. He turns Sirius’ hand over and plays with his fingers, strong and slender but not quite so brittle anymore, no longer so callous-coarse and blistered, and oh, how miraculous they are, how blindingly beautiful. If he hadn’t touched them so much these past few weeks, Remus thinks he might weep over them.

“Yeah. It’s you, all over.”

“And who’s that?”

Sirius pushes back against him, palm to palm now and their fingers tangled up together. A splash of sickly grey sunlight filters through the window and wraps around the cut of his silhouette, gets in his hair, paints him a watercolor study in chaotic black and gold. “Well, you’re a complete swot with more sweater vests than any self-respecting man twice your age would have and an upsetting fondness for French poetry and Weetabix, but who doesn’t know that already. So I guess what I mean is, you’ve got grey in your hair, and scars I don’t recognize, and your hands—Christ, were they always this big? They’re enormous.”

He catches Remus’ hand in both of his and drags the blunt edge of his thumbnail down his palm, his scars, his patchwork skin, all those parts that have grown with and without him, for all these years, for all his life. “And you learned how to cook more than you used to but you still can’t make pie. You’ve got ten green fingers and toes and you can grow tomatoes like you were born to do it and I’m pretty sure you’ve read enough filth in the last decade to make me feel inadequate, and you still keep a calendar by the telephone, and you’re like, like this endless fucking well of patience except I know you’re not really, but you’ve gotten even better at hiding it. And your mouth does this thing now when you’re frustrated or worried about whatever, like it’s trying to swallow itself—see, right there, I bet you didn’t believe me. Look in the mirror sometime, it’s hilarious. And you sleep even less than you used to. Your eyebrows go all wiggly when I do something you like, but at first I thought you were really constipated all the time and I was just too nice to say anything.”

“You’re an arse,” mutters Remus, only a little breathlessly.

“I am,” says Sirius, “and you chew your ice cream, so who’s the real twat here, eh? Anyway, you don’t alphabetize your books anymore, and you never wear shoes outside, but you still feed the birds and let them have my hair and you still think you can hide your giggles in your teacups, but I hear every one, Lupin.” He takes a breath; Remus holds his own tight in his lungs. “And I know where all your pieces fit, because that hasn’t changed, not even when I wasn’t there. You’ve got a few new freckles. And I love you. I love you all over. So, I suppose that means you’re Remus Lupin.”

There is a thick, heavy bubble crawling up Remus’ throat that he thinks may very well be his heart; he can’t swallow it, so he balances it on his tongue as best he can to keep it from leaping through his teeth or exploding all over his inside, tries hard not to bite down. “And who are you, then?” he asks tightly.

“Sorry, Moony,” says Sirius, his voice thinning out, scratchy-soft as reeds, “I’ve used up my soppy wanker quota for the day. Maybe tomorrow.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

“You can hold me to anything you want.”

“I know that’s meant to be vulgar,” he mutters, tightly, insanely, a little terrified that he’s saying it again, “I know it is, because you’re obscene and you’re trying to distract me but you just—do you have any idea? Do you have any idea how much I love you? Because, because I’m not naturally given to hysterics but my stomach is somewhere down by my ankles and you’ve got ink on your face and I’m bloody well sure I’ve never loved you more than I do right now.”

Sirius watches him for a long, narrow moment, before he looks down at his hand clasped around Remus’ forearm and drags it down, running his thumb into the heel of his palm, and everything in Remus strains for him, for that touch, for this—here, now. “I don’t really know what I ever did to deserve that,” he says. “But I’m glad I’m not in this alone, you know. That’d be the worst.”

Remus means to say something else, something like, Never, you were never alone, or This is a mess, we’re a fucking rush-hour train wreck, spilt milk, crying-on-the-couch, honest-to-God mess, or maybe just, Isn’t this the part where you’re supposed to kiss me, why aren’t you kissing me, but the sob that erupts from his throat is such a broken, spontaneous thing, shaking through him like a fever and blotting all the words out of his mouth, a shedding of old, bruised skin. All it takes is Sirius’ hand on the back of his head, fingers splayed between the notches of his spine as he cradles him to the crook of his shoulder until his nose is pressed against his temple, Sirius’ name between his teeth, prayed into his skin, earthy-dark, green, warm, and Remus breathes them in. Breathes and breathes and breathes.

It’s a strange thing, no longer feeling suspended like a spiderweb in some invisible rift between their past and their present—between the frantic-heart uncertainty of young men and the incalculable strength, the solidity of the people they’ve become, the men they are now, tangled together and twisted around each other after everything, after all. Two bodies always reacting to each other’s movements across time, across a sea, across a tattered sofa in their only home. Just breathing.

It happens in the hallway, in the garden, folding laundry, eating biscuits, in the kitchen over breakfast, nights spent in front of the Wireless: placeholder touches scattered into the spaces where their bodies meet, picked up in doorways, shoving sideways at the sink, sliding up ankles under the table, and Remus takes each one and tucks them into his clothes like promises, insidious as pocket lint.

It’s almost deafening, the way they don’t talk about it. The way they don’t have to.

“We can use my old house,” says Sirius, and Remus doesn’t have to look at him to know he’s already had his own private war about this and made up his mind, his answer resolved in the vicious set of his jaw, just as obstinate now as it was at seventeen. A single word, one arrogant nose-length glare from Sirius is a juicy exposé if you know how to mine it, and Remus is an expert by now: when he catches him watching from across the table, chair tipped back, chin lifted high, mouth twisted tight with tension and the acrid bite of too little sleep and too much coffee, Remus knows it for exactly what it is.

Remus has never actually seen Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place, only knows the bare bones of what Sirius told him when they were younger and he came back to school after every break quieter, a new sadness running across his brow, but he does know that he hates it the same way he knew he hated Sirius’ family and the pain they left bruising the corners of his eyes the winter he was sixteen; it’s something visceral, almost inhuman, snarling up through every single quivering layer of his skin like moonrise. Remus hates it.

“You can’t possibly think that’s a good idea. Of all the things you—”

“No, I think it’s fucking brilliant,” says Sirius, tipping his chair back farther and letting it clatter onto the tile with as much force as he can muster. Remus wants to knock him on his arse, whether for the scratch on his tile or the fact of this awful conversation or the way his voice jackknifes over the words, he doesn’t know. Maybe all of it. “I mean, we know I can’t do anything, right, can’t have me pretending to be useful. Can’t have me telling Harry anything that His Holiness, Albus ‘Jesus Christ’ Dumbledore doesn’t approve first. But this serves the dual purpose of being a fantastic hiding place and keeping me out of his beard.”

Remus presses the heel of his hand into his eye until he sees spots, feeling the ache straining into the socket and pulsing through his skull with its dull, heavy throb. “This isn’t about Dumbledore,” he starts, but Sirius cuts him off.

“Of course it is. Dumbledore knows best and no mistake, that’s why he’s got his own chocolate frog card and everything. Only an uncivilized worm doubts a man on a chocolate frog card.”

“No, it’s bloody well not,” Remus snaps. “This is about you making decisions you’ll regret in twenty minutes because you don’t see any other way and you won’t bother to try.”

“You know, I am an adult, I chew my own food and everything, so you can drop the fucking leash any minute now,” says Sirius, staring down at his fingernails, digging them into his palm. Anyone else might think it’s offhand, but Remus knows every brittle syllable that splinters off behind the clench of his teeth, knows them just as well the rasp of danger rumbling low in his throat. “It’s nothing to do with you, anyway.”

It’s like being a vegetable steamer, he thinks, biting it all down and pushing it somewhere beneath his ribs until it simmers into something more manageable, mushier, easier to digest; he picks up his teacup and sets it in the sink, and very, very carefully doesn’t glance back at Sirius when he reaches for the dishrag and soap. “No,” he says, “I suppose it’s not. It certainly wasn’t last time. So—when are you running off? Tomorrow, next week?”

“Oh, fuck you,” Sirius half-drawls, as if he’d been expecting it. Probably, he had been. “Not everything I do is about you, Remus.”

“I’ve never been that delusional, you know. I’d hate for you to start lying to me now.”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Sirius slams one hand flat on the table; it rattles all the way down its shaky legs to the tile. “I’m trying to—this is all I can do, this is all he’ll let me do, and I’m doing the right thing. For once in my fucking life. I’d have thought you’d be thrilled.”

Remus turns around so fast it actually makes him dizzy, feeling very much like overcooked broccoli now as he meets Sirius’ eyes, the unrelenting grey of storm clouds sharper than any blade. “For what, watching you go back there? To that?” he spits. “There are other places we can use, you don’t—”

“And there’s nowhere better, there’s nowhere Harry will be safer, and it’s the only bloody thing I can do now,” he mutters. Remus can see his jaw clench and unclench, bracing for hurt, knotting up. “So do you think you can just shut up and let me do this one thing?”

He says nothing for a shrill moment, not because he can’t think of anything to say, but because he can think of a thousand terrible things, glass bullets to shoot across the kitchen between Sirius’ eyes, but Sirius beats him to the draw, the way he always does. “I’m not running away from you, or whatever it is you think,” he says, night-quiet, his eyes still on Remus’ eyes, midnight-rich. “I thought you knew that by now.”

“No, you did enough of that when you were twenty-one,” mutters Remus, turning his back just as Sirius’ chair clatters and rattles against the floor when he stands abruptly, the whole house gone still and frightened.

“This from the man whose lips were so firmly attached to Dumbledore’s arse you’d have landed somewhere in Cornwall like a deflated human-balloon if you’d let go.”

“Would you shut the bloody hell up about Dumbledore? I don’t, I don’t fucking care about Dumbledore, this isn’t about Dumbledore, this is about you running off and not thinking and doing things that are only going to hurt you in the long run,” he spits, taking a sharp breath through his nose. Sirius’ chin is tilted up towards the ceiling slightly, the light howling in the blades of his cheekbones and his nose, a Black always in his anger, a Black, still, to his back teeth. “I don’t know why I expected anything else, why would you even want to be here—”

“God, shut up, Remus, just—shut up.” Sirius looks monstrous when he’s angry, mythological, too vast to contain within his own skin. His fingers are trembling with it, livid bone-white around the teacup he’s clutching in his hand, and Remus knows he wants to throw it, but he just sets it gently back down on the table in a remarkable show of self-restraint—probably knowing Remus is expecting broken porcelain so he can shout about that, too—and instead drags his hand so hard through his hair he comes up with a few strands between his fingers, fine as brushstrokes. “You don’t get to tell me how I feel, and if you’re going to keep shoving fourteen years ago in my face every time something’s died in your trousers I can damn well find somewhere else to stay. I’d hate to burden you.”

“Throw a few vague accusations at me and it might as well be fourteen years ago! You always do this, always, and I’m left with the mess when no one else is around to clean it up like it’s always been, and I don’t want to fucking watch it happen this time. I’m sick of it, I’m sick of no one telling me anything until it’s too late and you need me for something and I can’t say no even if the people involved think I’m just another of my kind ready to sell them out for a bit of rodent blood come the moon. And you’re not even thinking about yourself. You don’t want this. I know fucking well what that place did to you once and I don’t want to see it again.”

“Remus, that’s why I am telling you,” says Sirius, very slowly and very dangerously. “I want you to come with me. It’s shit, I know it’s shit, but it’s not as bad as all that and it’s not like we’ve got a goddamn choice. I’m not going to leave you—”

“But you are. That’s exactly what you’re doing,” he says, taking a breath that doesn’t actually help for anything. “And we both know what comes next.”

“What, are you scared again? Is that it?” Sirius hisses, snarls. “Isn’t that what it’s always been?”

He pushes the cabinet door shut, mockingly gentle, and turns to Sirius, ready to meet him blow for blow. “And you’re not, of course, not even when you are, because you know best and that’s always worked out so well for you before, hasn’t it.”

“I don’t have time for your fucking martyr act right now,” Sirius growls between his teeth, “and in case you’ve forgotten, I’ve been paying for that for damn near half my life now. So—thank you for your support, Remus. Thank you for not caring. It means a lot.”

“Where the hell are you going,” Remus barks, the hectic warmth of his heart pounding in his ears, but Sirius is already slamming the kitchen door, the dog bounding away down the hill and into the forest with a soft rustle of the dry, ash-brown leaves, swallowed up with the cottony veil of rain. Gone, gone, gone.

They’ve done this so many times before, Sirius’ short fuse lit and hissing away until Remus sparked it to concussive blasts of fire and fury with a scrape of flint in his voice; Sirius would seethe for hours, and afterwards Remus would read a book or sip his tea as if nothing was wrong, and the draft in the walls would make him shiver with the silence and the chill, and then Sirius would drink too much, and sometimes one of them would sleep on the couch, or they would curl up as far away from each other as they could get on the bed and pretend they weren’t both lying awake half the night. In school, before they were—he still cringes at his own phrasing—romantically involved, it usually ended with one of them climbing under the other’s blanket, dragging stolen crisps and chocolate out from under the bed and not caring that it got all over the sheets when their laughter gave them away, the way it always did.

It wasn’t often and it was never anything serious, not until the end, and it was always over quickly, quietly, like the moon shimmering below the horizon at dawn: Sirius with a bar of chocolate, or a kiss at the kitchen sink, or a crossword clue so absurd that only the combined bubble of unrelenting daftness that was Sirius Black and Remus Lupin could possibly solve it together. A warm I love you, pressed like a stamp to Sirius’ ear; Did you know scientists have discovered that I do, in fact, love you? We’ll have to watch for developments on that front, could be interesting to see what happens to my trousers later on. There were a few times, late in their seventh year, when they actually skived off History of Magic to fuck on the dormitory floor.

If you take two steps backwards every time someone takes one towards you, they’ll never get close enough to do any lasting damage, and if you swallow your own heart down every time it leaps into your throat, no one else is ever going to hear it, and you’ll never have to worry about hurting it yourself because it barely beats at all. He’s spent most of his life cultivating that sincere, remote kindness that flecks his eyes with gold, half out of nature and half out of having enough of his own agony by the time he was barely out of nappies to ever want to inflict it himself, because Remus would still rather plant something than fight the world.

And that’s the whole problem, isn’t it: he’s got what he wants, or he’s getting there, and he’s too scared of losing it again to take another step forward on his own. He probably could have made decent money volunteering himself for a test subject, he thinks, How Not to Be a Well-Adjusted Human Being: A Case Study in Being a Pathetic Bastard, starring Remus Lupin, Exhibit A. Sing, o muse, of how you kids don’t want to end up like him!

The whole thing is illogical and stupid and he ought to know better by now. You can’t cling to yesterday. You can’t eat happy memories, you can’t live on should-have-beens; there is only what’s waiting for you at the end of tomorrow, borne on a train trundling along far too fast to stop, so you’d better learn to get your feet under you and hold on to whatever you love, because this thing never had any brakes at all.

Remus finds him outside, feels him more than sees him: a pinpoint of clarity quivering down the back of his neck just before midnight, sitting beneath the old oak and the wiry vein of stars cobbled together into shapes that feel like theirs, his shoes off and his eyes on the golden smear of the Pleiades. He’s so thin in the dark, bright bird in the shadows, a glass cutout set against the night; he doesn’t make a move when Remus sits down next to him with a small plate of toast and blackberry jam, but he leans his back and lets out a slim, slow breath that makes Remus feel like all the air is being let out of him, and waits.

“I’m not apologizing this time because I’m pretty sure that one was mostly you,” says Sirius, reaching over for a piece of toast, licks jam off his forefinger.

“I know,” says Remus. He doesn’t touch any, himself.

“And I’m not running away from you. So. There.”

“I know,” he says again, softly, sadly.

There’s nothing but the wind and the trees for a few minutes, the crickets rasping their twilight song down in the tall grass until Remus says, gently, “For what it’s worth, I am sorry, but you know that already.”

Which is a very condensed version of, I’m sorry I have everything I’ve ever wanted right in front of me and I still don’t know what to do with it sometimes because that just doesn’t happen for me and I’m absolutely fucking terrified of losing you again and what this will do to you and to me and I’m a huge, boring, irredeemable wanker with only toast and teabags to his credit, but he reckons Sirius hears what he doesn’t say, anyway, and he’s got imagination enough to come up with the rest.

Sirius, mimicking his soft, careful intone rather stunningly, effects a wide-eyed, concerned frown and murmurs, very Remus-ly, “Yes, Remus, I know,” which tells him that he’s heard it all, anyway.

Remus puts his hand on the back of his head and shoves Sirius’ face into his toast, listens to him sputter blackberry all over. “You’ve got jam on your face,” Remus informs him.

“How about that, fuckwit,” says Sirius, but he’s laughing as he wipes his mouth on the back of his hand, beautiful, his teeth and his hands full of the moon, his face lit like this is new to them again, and, God, his eyes. Remus used to dream about his eyes, just like this, bright and open as a river and only for him, and both of them so young still, both of them so together, and here they are.

Here they are.

“I’m—Sirius, I—”

“There’s a war on, you know,” Sirius blurts out as if he hasn’t heard him, his voice hoarse from half a day’s disuse or maybe just the sudden closeness, this hot dark thing like London heat, asphalt and brick and mortar heavy with hope, or, fear, or expectation, all pressing hard into his lungs.

“I know that.”

“There’s a war on,” Sirius repeats, and Remus can feel the murmur of his breath against his cheek when he turns his head to look at him, sweet and close like rainwater, “I think I’d like to kiss you.”

Everything inside Remus shocks and jolts in a quicksilver flash through his body, all these unspoken parts of them settling to the bottom like sediment, the rest of the world blurring out at the edges, insignificant, meaningless, when there is this, now.

“Then I think you’d better,” he says, and Sirius shifts, and leans over, and for the first, agonizing time, he does.

Oh, he thinks, oh, but the first time you kissed me, you hadn’t asked my permission at all, but you had it so long ago, you always had it, didn’t you, didn’t you. It was the winter they were seventeen, just before Christmas in the flat Sirius had rented in London, James and Peter asleep on the couch and Remus sipping his second mug of hot chocolate in Sirius’ bedroom, watching him yank tinsel out of his hair that had been stuck there hours earlier by James. His shirt kept slipping up over his belly slightly every time he scrubbed a hand across his abused scalp, or maybe his trousers were just slung too low; Remus, feeling electric and overwhelmingly awake, pressed his mug close to his face.

It’s cold in here, said Remus, talking over the flickering nerves in his belly as he stared down at the carpet and started to feel extremely, painfully awkward for reasons he was trying very hard to ignore. If there was a pattern there in the fabric, he couldn’t pick it out, but at least there were no mysterious stains like there were in the kitchen. Are you sure the heat’s working?

Cold, he says, Sirius snorted, flinging tinsel into Remus’ lap from halfway across the room. Where’s your English constitution? Where’s that stodgy prefect spirit? Men like you don’t get cold, Moony.

What’s that supposed to mean?

It means that I think you like to get cold, said Sirius, a strange smile stretched tight across his mouth, like it might snap at any moment if Remus said the wrong thing. It means I think you like to shiver. You must.

I really don’t know what you’re talking about, he said, feeling something hot and heavy drop into the pit of his stomach, the knobby shadows of his ankles, but no, I actually don’t.

No, I think you do, said Sirius, and there was an odd note in his voice that snagged in Remus’ ears. Low and keyed-up, a little hurt and a little accusatory, and Remus knew, suddenly, that if he looked over at Sirius from where he was sitting at the end of his bed, here in his new flat, something was going to happen. Something that had been trying to happen in fits and starts for at least a year, and it was hanging right there in the space from the foot of the bed to Sirius’ shadow-sharp face, just waiting to be caught. When Remus looked up and met his eyes, it felt like inevitability.

It wasn’t much like he imagined it might be, on the occasions he had allowed himself to imagine it at all (and he did, guiltily, voraciously); the angle was a little uncomfortable, and there were teeth, and he didn’t actually know he could make the noise he made when Sirius’ tongue swept across his lips and pushed in, and he was just thinking it was a very good thing he was sitting down for this when Sirius pulled back and looked at him, his eyes bright, his mouth wet and bitten-red, young and beautiful and looking so much like he used to when he was twelve years old and the world was all wonder and excitement that something in Remus’ chest unfurled, ached with it, and all he could think was that he would do this forever, that he would steal the sorrow right out of Sirius’ mouth, if he could.

This is your last chance to pretend I’m drunk and tell me to go bugger the toaster and never talk about this again, murmured Sirius, and God, and ragged, right against his lips, because I don’t think I can handle—

And Remus just pulled him down and kissed him again like he knew what he was doing, let Sirius push him back on the bed and slide his hands up his jumper, shivered at his fingers on the rising swell of his ribs; eventually, unsure of what else to do, he bent his knees around Sirius’ hips and pressed his fingers and his lips to every part of him he could reach, wanting only to be closer, gasped into his mouth—surprised, thrilled, wanting—when Sirius pressed his thigh between his legs, and brushed a hand over his heart.

James and Peter, he whispered, even as he tightened his hands on Sirius’ elbows, even as he leaned up to press his open mouth to the hollow of Sirius’ throat and felt him swallow, felt him sigh, his own pulse running wild and frantic in his ears.

Do you know how much I don’t care, growled Sirius, actually growled, his thumbs smoothing harshly over Remus’ cheekbones like reverence, like an ancient longing, his stuttered breath caught between them. I want you. I’ve wanted you for—God, you have no idea, he whispered, his eyes bright as a charm, but Remus just said, I have some, and it was all right. It was Sirius, and him, and all the scars they could count between them in the dull light of his new bedroom, and it was all right. It was the logical evolution of all the things that were them. It was certainty. It was inevitability.

It was everything Remus had wanted for so long, and there it was—unfurling from some coiled-up place deep inside him, his all along, just waiting for the dusty cogs to turn, waiting for ignition so he could take it and run.

After, when they were lying together on slightly damp sheets under the quilt, the sound of their breath conflating with the sound of the flames in the fireplace in the other room, Remus buried his face in Sirius’ chest, smelling sweat and wet earth and them, and decided love was, after all, a little like losing half your mind: by the time you realize you’re in up to your eyeballs, you’ve already been there for so long you’ve been taking it in your tea every morning and going to bed with it every night, and you’ve nearly missed the boarding call for the last train and you’re getting some strange looks from the other passengers as you pace the platform aimlessly, until it finally strikes you that, oh: you know where you want to go, and suddenly there you are, very naked and very tangled up with your friend, sleepy and messy and thrilled with it, warm in places you never knew you could be warm in and both of you so in love, so deeply, utterly, irrevocably in love that you’re never going to claw your way out of it. And you’re pretty happy about that.

I feel insane, said Remus, his mouth on Sirius’ throat, catching his laughter on his tongue. You’ve made me completely insane.

I caught it from you first, said Sirius, and Remus felt the shape of his own body so flushed and open and sleepily defined beneath Sirius’ hands, felt his own voice, dream-sweet and secret, beautiful, trapped between them both. You’re diseased, you’re—you’re just,, he whispered, you’re fucking perfect, right as Remus kissed him, and closed his eyes.

Even here, now, in the silver darkness of his backyard, it feels exactly the same, half-remembered poetry and bated breath. A twenty-four year chain of reactions dragging them from the Hogwarts Sorting to this, their mouths moving together slowly, Remus’ hand clasped too tight on the back of Sirius’ neck and his heart pounding so hard through his whole body he’s sure Sirius can feel it in his skin. When he pulls back, Sirius doesn’t let go of his elbow, doesn’t vanish, doesn’t push him away, and all Remus can think as he leans in again is that he wants to be this breathless forever, wants nothing but this closeness, the feeling of Sirius’ chest swelling and deflating against his own, renewed and young and pulled to a bright knifepoint of expectance, urgent and heavy underneath their skin.

“I think—we should go inside,” he says wildly, running his palm over Sirius’ knuckles and up his wrist. “Right now. Definitely right now. If you want to.”

Sirius’ nose slots against his when he drags his lips across his cheek and back to Remus’ mouth, lazy and uninhibited, his eyes surprised, slate-warm. “I’d like that,” he says, staring unblinkingly at Remus, color high in his cheeks. Remus can feel his pulse under his chin when he leans in to press his mouth to the thin skin there, thrumming fast-fast-fast on his lips with the sun-green softness of his neck. “I’d hate to make the crickets out here jealous, you know.”

Remus leads him inside by the hand, feeling his cool fingers start to heat just as Sirius pushes him up against the kitchen table and kisses him hard, hands gripping his hips, stubble tickling his chin when he tilts his head and Sirius’ tongue flits between his lips, velvet-smooth and certain, now, against his own. There’s nowhere they aren’t touching, his skin almost feverish with it underneath his clothes as they stumble down the hallway, pushing each other against the wall every few steps just for the connection, just for the thrill of it, each brush of lips and hands and skin a bright sunburst of heat pulsing through Remus’ body. When Sirius’ breath catches and his fingers dig too hard into Remus’ waist, he groans against his shoulder and flexes his hips, bites his mouth, slides his hands up his shivering back and shoulders and into his hair.

In the bleary late-night of the bedroom, Sirius folds his arms over his chest when Remus pulls his shirt off, cold hands, rabbit heart, his eyes gone soft, rain on river stones; Remus, never used to people looking at him and wanting what they see, feels it so keenly his throat aches and aches with the bulk of the things he wants to say, everything he wants to bury in Sirius’ body so deep it can never, ever be found.

“It’s just skin, Sirius,” he whispers, breath at his throat. He shudders when Remus slides his fingers around his narrow hips, pressing into the small of his back, and Remus kisses the bump of bone on his shoulder to the dip of his collarbone, eyes closed like this is ritual, idolatry. “It’s only you.”

“I’m—ha, I’m a little like an undergrown potato,” says Sirius, hesitant, but he still reaches for Remus’ hands and pulls them to his ribs, leans close until their foreheads and their noses touch; Remus can feel every quick pull of breath when he slides his hands up to his chest, thin and brittle-boned and so bright and beautiful and utterly alive that it makes him dizzy. “But at least my hair’s still all right.”

“I don’t—I don’t actually think you’ve ever looked better to me in your life,” he says, weakly, wanting his hands closer, wanting to fall into the very center of him until they can’t find his way out anymore. “You are so attractive it’s actually doing that thing, you remember, that thing on the backs of my thighs?”

His laugh is so familiar now, the way it startles out of him and into Remus, the latest in a long succession of things so wonderful they do, in fact, make the backs of his thighs tingle the way they did, insanely, all those years ago, almost shaking with love and anticipation alike. “You’re so weird,” says Sirius, biting sharply at his earlobe, leaving his smile at the corner of his jaw. “Make you all wobbly, do I.”

“You’re making my knees hot,” laughs Remus, feeling heavy with excitement, “and that, that bloody well isn’t normal, and I don’t know how you—how can you even do that, I can’t feel my toes.”

“Sounds like a circulation problem,” says Sirius. “I like the backs of your thighs, you know. I like the backs of your everything.”

And then Sirius is touching him, the edges of his jaw, his neck, his stomach under his brown cotton shirt, and this—he could have gone the rest of his life without this. He could never have felt Sirius’ lips on his again, his hands drifting over his hips, his heart pounding against his ribs when Remus holds him close. His voice, his fingers and toes, the summer salt-rime taste of his skin, the ink-smudge of his hair tickling his cheek. Remus shivers, the base of his spine igniting at the brush of Sirius’ thumbs, and closes his eyes against the burn.

“You have no idea,” he mutters, clutching at Sirius’ ribs, his spine, pressing his face into his shoulder where he’s so solid, so alive, so utterly, utterly beautiful beneath the borders of his lips, his hands. “You have no idea.”

Sirius whispers, softly, “I have some.”

He’s not as embarrassed as he thought he might be when his own shirt comes off, given that his own body was never exactly young the way Sirius’ was and it hasn’t gotten any newer with the years, pink-white scrapes and scars and near arthritic, sometimes, with the grind of the moon filling up on cold nights, but when it becomes apparent that they’re not going to fall apart at the seams or rip open all the scars on their bodies that have only just started healing, Remus takes Sirius’ hand and presses it between his legs, pulsing, hardening, feeling suddenly braver with the rush of the heat building between them. “I want you,” he says, watching Sirius’ eyes widen, his own breath hitching in his throat at the metal clang of Sirius unbuckling his belt, pushing his trousers down his legs.

His mouth finds the jut of every rib, the dip of his belly, his navel, the bone-white stretch of skin over his knees; when Remus kneels on the floor in front of the bed and takes him in his hand, fingers stroking up the base of his cock, Sirius hisses and pushes into his grip, reaches for his shoulder, the muscles in his belly fluttering lightly at the kiss Remus presses to his hip, his thighs, teeth on his hipbone, his hand clenching hard on Remus’ arm when he drags his tongue around the tip of his cock and then slipping his mouth around it, heavy between his lips when he sucks his cheeks in, a slow curl of his tongue. The gasp that rips from Sirius’ throat as Remus slides his mouth down his cock and slowly up again is jagged with sudden exhilaration, sudden surrender.

“Remus—Remus, I can’t, oh, God,” he groans, his fingers tangling, trembling in Remus’ hair, and his voice saying that is more beautiful than Remus could ever have remembered, better than he could have crafted in any dream, rough and raw as a thin glint of light. He lets his cock slip from his mouth with a playful twist of his tongue while he watches Sirius watching him, one hand slipping from its hook around the crook of his knee to slide up the back of his thigh while he moves up to lie beside him on the bed, fingers digging into his neck when he kisses him, a hiss of a matchstick, rough and urgent. He still tastes like blackberry jam.

“I want you inside me,” Remus says hoarsely against his lips, “please, please,” and then there’s nothing but Sirius’ hands pressing him back, his mouth sinking into half-numb, decade-old scar tissue at his chest and ribcage, all the ones he missed and all the ones he knows, as if he could tear the old pain right out with his teeth, if he only could. Sirius’ hand wraps around his cock, his tongue tracing the pink sliver of a scar along his collarbone, and Remus moans something, knuckles stutter-stroking up against his belly.

The way Sirius is looking at him when he shifts down between Remus’ legs sends a hot wave of blood through his body, making him feel at once wanted and loved and maybe even a little attractive, but strangely like a ghost, too, as if Sirius can see through his skin to his bones and his frantic heart with its quiet murmur, please-please-please against Sirius’ palm, his lips. He knows what he looks like, knows the cartography of his own ravaged body, and if Sirius weren’t clambering for skin and bone he might be embarrassed, all knobs and sharp joints. They’re both too thin still, too wrung out, but it’s only them, only his fingers and toes and Sirius’ fingers and toes. He flicks his eyes up to Sirius’ and settles his hands at his neck where he can feel the pulse fluttering against his fingers like a bird, his face flushed dusk-soft as Remus spreads his knees farther apart, sliding slickly around his ribs.

“I’m here, Remus,” whispers Sirius, kissing him to desperate, excited breathlessness, pressing one hand over Remus’ own at his throat, leaning into the other that curls gently around his jaw, his knifeblade cheekbone. “I’m right here.”

“I know you are,” he says. Sirius’ pulse surges up against his hands, beating fast in his palms like a living thing, clamoring for the sound of his voice, the taste of his mouth. “I feel you. I can feel you,” he says, and then they’re both laughing, his heart shuddering with Sirius’ heart, as if it never learned to stop at all.

It’s clumsy at first, a desperate scrabble of hands and hips and mouths trying to get closer, closer, but this is hardly complicated, and Remus likes to think they were always pretty good at it even if this is mostly only taking the sting out of fourteen years of relative solitude. A few mumbled words of an old incantation, fingers urging him open, a hand digging into his thigh where it’s wrapped tightly around his waist, and then Sirius is deep inside him with one shift of hips, one sharp hiss of breath.

It’s not surprising when Sirius wakes up in the night gnawing on old bones; it never is, and Remus had been expecting it, dimly, just as he fell asleep, like he expects the same of himself around roughly three in the morning, and he reckons both of them will flit in and out of sleep like this until the sparrows start singing with the glossy morning light. Remus’ expectations, as they sometimes are with the mercurial human hurricane that is Sirius Black, are short to shards when he presses up closer against Remus’ back instead of slipping out of bed and shedding dog fur on every surface for the rest of the night. They make a couple of question marks on the bed when Remus turns over and wraps an arm around his ribcage, smiling at the sleepy kiss buried into his shoulder, their curves and their angles. Remarkable, he thinks, the way they still fit together, his bony knees making a perfect match for Sirius’ bony knees.

There’s a certain art to sharing a bed with someone, a precarious hairpin balance of arms and legs and unconscious twists and tangles that, if done just right, will keep your toes warm and your dreams safe even when they take a wrong turn down the darkest alleys in the middle of the night. Remus used to think about it all the time when he first started sleeping with Sirius, how for every movement and every dip of the mattress on his side there was an equal and sometimes theatric reaction on the other, his elbows in Sirius’ chest, hair in his mouth in the mornings, the total inability to position the quilt exactly how he wanted when Sirius latched onto him like it was Christmas and Remus was the last bit of pudding. He’d think about it more than he thought about the strange and pleasant newness of sex or the possibility of eggs and tea and sugary oatmeal every morning, going old and grey together; it was folding himself up to fit into Sirius at night that worried him, holding all their pieces together between them that he was so afraid he could never do.

Which was fairly ridiculous. No one cares about knees in delicate places or whether your shoulders and your hips line up perfectly; all they’ll care about is that you’re there and you still like them, inhuman night-noises and pointy bits and all. Remus reckons love is probably nothing more and nothing less than being happy for Sirius’ cold feet tucked against his shins, their naked limbs.

It reminds him of being eleven years old, when Sirius was the first to notice the new scars and the odd wounds peeking out from under the frayed hem of his jumper, or at least the first to express outward concern; after full moons, before he ever knew, Sirius would cross the dormitory floor and part the scarlet curtains in the dark to curl up with Remus on his bed, where they would lie awake half the night trying to scare each other and trading their secrets like candy with eager fingers. It didn’t stop in second year, or third, not in fifth year after it all got a little easier, a little brighter. It didn’t stop sixth year, even when it got so quiet for those few weeks in January after that moon he woke from alone with his own blood between his teeth and a swelling panic in his gut; it didn’t stop even then, because some things can’t be cloaked in apologies or declawed with all the kindness in your heart, never a silver lining, after all, without a cloud. Some things can only be felt.

Want to know a secret, Moony, Sirius would ask, and Remus would hoard them all just for himself.

“Want to know a secret?” he murmurs, midnight-rich, smoothing Sirius’ hair out at the base of his skull and feeling more than hearing the brush of laughter pushing at his chest. Sirius’ eyelashes are so long and they’re tangled so close that they brush his collarbone when he glances up, turning his head against the sheets so he can look at Remus, running a happy, sleepy palm up his side to his chest.

“Yeah,” he says, smiling Remus’ favorite smile, or, at least, one of them, “let’s have it.”

“You’ve been the last thing I think of before I go to sleep since I was eleven years old,” says Remus, trailing his fingers over his temple and into his hair, tugging on the single short, obstinate curl that’s been there for as long as Remus has known him, “and you’re the first thing I think of when I wake up. It’s like you’ve given me a disease.”

Sirius swallows; his breath seems to catch somewhere at the back of his throat before he says, “I guess the daftness really was contagious, then,” and pushes his head up beside Remus’ on his pillow. “Should’ve taken it seriously. I’m ruined.”

“It was, too,” says Remus. “I’ll have you know I’ve spent a significant chunk of my life loving you to a degree that borders on insane.”

“That’s not really a secret,” whispers Sirius. He finds Remus’ other hand on the pillow and pulls it close, sliding his thumb over the ridges of his knuckles. “Invalid. Disqualified.”

“No, it’s not,” he agrees, “but it’s yours, so I thought you ought to know.”

“I’m not sure I’ve got any for you. I feel so cheap.”

“It’s because you’re an open book,” says Remus, tracing the arch an eyebrow with a lazy forefinger. “So open your pages are falling out.”

“Haha, yes, that Sirius Black is an enormous tart, it’s not like you haven’t been milking that one like you grew up on a dairy farm since you were fifteen.”

“That was James. Mostly.”

“Oh, bugger you and your selective Prefectly memory, we both know you never missed an opportunity to look smug and make a cutting remark whenever someone brought up Dorcas Meadowes and the broomshed. Jealousy always made you look so consumptive,” says Sirius, pressing his nose into the side of Remus’ neck, breathing him in. “I love you and all the diseases you gave me. Daft plonker.”

“I love you,” answers Remus, just for the sweet belly-thrill of being able to say it at all. There is a significant part of him, at least the size of an eleven-year-old heart, that has loved Sirius since the third week of their first year, when Remus found him huddled into the arm of a couch in the Common Room late one night with that tight line of sadness running through his shoulders and took a seat next to him, listening as Sirius talked in halting tones about his family and his newly discovered love of dungbombs and all things red and itchy that could fit in Severus Snape’s pants, telling him, Hey, y’know, you’re a good sort Lupin, let’s go downstairs and steal some cheesecake and don’t give me that look you know you want it, and he wished so much that he knew how to open himself up to let this other boy sink to the bottom of him, just for a while. It was never a surprise, when he thought on it so much later, that Remus fell in love with him. It was always a ticking time bomb just waiting for a single word, a single touch to set it off.

He’s never especially believed in much at all, but Remus does believe in logic of some twisted sort, and he knows there is a fundamental aspect of them that just works on the most basic, primal level; even if he had never been allowed at Hogwarts, even if they had been sorted into different Houses, even if he really had grown up in the south of France being as huge a ponce as Sirius sometimes said he was, Remus believes that the universe would have knocked their heads together somehow in a tidal crash of reckless laughter and hurricane inevitability. Sirius Black’s cold feet are meant to be wedged between Remus Lupin’s wiry shins late at night. It’s just the way the world works.

It’s just the way they work, he thinks, knees jammed against knees and blackberry pie and crossword clues, the way they were always supposed to.

“I love you,” he says into Sirius’ forehead, and they sleep again, the rhythmic rise and fall of their chests like nighttime waves, their muscles and bones relaxed like no other time, tangled and together as a dream.

The dregs of late July and early August are remarkably like being twenty years old again in all the ways that matter, both of them relearning an old language in a new dialect they’ve suddenly found themselves fluent in: the syntax of Sirius’ eyes on his eyes over the rim of his coffee cup, the careless diction of lips trailing along jawlines while they make breakfast. The inflection of shared breath and gangly limbs, the exclamation of fingers in belt loops, the sweet, metered syllables of silence and skin-on-skin. In these few weeks, grown in the hush of a year and the swell of the words they’ve nurtured between them, they truly have become a language they cannot speak without each other.

Sometimes, they lie in bed until midmorning doing nothing but talking and touching, finding new ways to fit themselves together while the grey summer light filters in through the gap in the curtains, eating toast and jam and peaches on the quilt; others, they spend hours in the garden and come in with dirty hands and feet and shower together before dinner, use up all the hot water and make feeble attempts at Good Sense and Respectability when they go downstairs with all their clothes in place like they’re not going to have strawberry ice cream and peanut butter for dinner. When they need food, Remus goes down to the village in the afternoons, and sometimes Sirius shifts into a dog to come with him and sometimes he stays home, waiting to take the groceries out of his arms and kiss him stupid in the doorway. They pick the last of the blackberries and eat fleshy nectarines that run down their chins and stain their shirts, do the crosswords every morning and read bad poetry aloud or listen to worse daytime Wireless broadcasts with feet in laps and fingers in hair, leave the washing up after dinner for the next morning more often than not. Some days they don’t even leave the house, spending most of the day falling in and out of bed, wearing not much of anything at all and relying on last night’s leftovers for sustenance on the rare occasion they descend the creaky stairs to the kitchen.

He wonders, as he’s maneuvering around Sirius in the bathroom for his toothbrush, if this is a glimmer of who they might have been if everything had worked out the way it was supposed to. When Sirius leans over him to grab a washcloth and presses a blue toothpaste kiss to the corner of his mouth, Remus decides that it isn’t, that who they might have been isn’t important anymore: this is who they are. This is who they are, written, rewritten, scarred over.

“I want to be fucking soldered to you,” says Sirius, mumbling it right against Remus’ lips. Remus can feel his stubble there brushing against his chin, rasping at his mouth with every word he speaks, bristly and ticklish and, God, he’s never loved anything so much. “I want to crawl inside you and live there.”

“That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever said to me,” he says, and Sirius catches his laugh in his mouth, because there’s really no space left between them for it to fall. He opens his mouth and slides his tongue against Sirius’, velvet-warm and slick; he tastes like summer, peach-bright, soft as chalk when Remus runs his thumbs over his jaw and tilts his head up from where Sirius has him up against the wall so he can smoosh their noses together.

“Stupidest thing I’ve said today, you mean. It’ll be outdated by this time tomorrow, and you’ll be saying the same thing. A tragic personal failing, and et cetera.”

“Oh you of little faith,” murmurs Remus, “you’ve still got a whole evening to outdo yourself yet. Tell me again how pretty I am.”

“You’re really pretty,” says Sirius, his arms slipping from where he’s got them draped over Remus’s shoulders to wrap around his waist, tugging him even closer so that they practically collapse into each other, laughing just because. Remus kisses him under his eyes, under his chin, the place where his jaw meets his ear, one of his softest spots and possibly Remus’ favorite; his skin tastes like Ivory soap, like salt and soft green things, strangely sweeter than it used to.

“I really should go start dinner,” says Remus after a few moments of quiet spent tracing nonsense patterns on Sirius’ back, making a valiant effort of untangling himself. He wiggles his fingers and thinks about it and everything—real conviction there, with Sirius wrapped around him and no desire for anything but the warm weight of each other and all their pieces shoved together. The yellow early evening light spills onto the dusty bookshelves, paints them wistful and warm; yes, he would stay here.

“I ought to start something,” he says again, forgotten as soon as Sirius noses into the crook of his neck with white-sharp teeth, which Remus thinks is his favorite spot, and quite well-chosen at that.

“And yet here you are, throwing yourself all over me like a lazy, lazy slag of a werewolf. Which you are

“Here I am, being groped—oh, that’s—being groped by an escaped convict in my own sitting room.”

Sirius cranes his head to bite down on his ear and then pulls it gently between his teeth, which really ought not to make Remus’ knees go so wobbly, but that’s just how his body seems to work these days: Sirius will drag a hand through his hair, or stretch his legs out in front of him and wriggle his feet, or give him a sleepy early morning smile, or eat a ham sandwich, or do something else completely mundane and innocuous, and Remus will go all dry-mouthed and flushed and the universe just won’t balance itself out until he’s grabbed Sirius around the elbows and kissed him for a good few minutes. It’s insane. It’s absurd. It’s absolutely fucking beautiful.

“Makes your upright professor’s constitution tremble all dark and dangerous like, doesn’t it,” Sirius growls into his ear. “You’re sleeping with the most sought-after criminal in England, Moony, how does that rev your engine?”

“I’m sorry, do you hear a dog barking? I thought I heard a dog barking.”

“Keep talking like that and I’ll have you howling on the kitchen table,” says Sirius, fingers in his belt loops, and it’s so ridiculous and familiar and Remus wants it, wants to fuck him at the table and against the cold cupboard and the sitting room floor, wants to be here with Sirius’ laugh buried into his shoulder and their jangled limbs, wants to be here forever.

Oh, Mr. Black,” he drawls, all the false surprise he can muster in the honey-slow smile Sirius loves so much, “you’re going to ruin my reputation when everyone finds out, and then what? What are you going to do about it?”

“I’m going to make a salad,” says Sirius, grinning brightly and pulling Remus along into the kitchen.

“Arsehole,” Remus says cheerfully, letting himself be led to the counter where they work on chopping up tomatoes and peeling the carrots they dug up this morning; Sirius always seems to find it strangely cathartic. He wonders whether Number Twelve has a garden, decides it’s about as likely as the house not having a few pieces of thirteenth-century silver specifically designed to gore werewolves, and then stops thinking about it at all.

Dinner is vegetable soup with stringy leftover beef, the salad Sirius made, some good rosemary potatoes which Remus determinedly does not burn. Once they’ve cleared it all away, they leave the dishes in the sink and sit outside after they’re finished, eating the last of the blackberries at the bottom of the basket Remus keeps them in and reading the day’s owl post to each other; Remus reads through Harry’s letter twice, addressed to both of them and shot through with so much grief he feels a fresh surge of anger towards Dumbledore he hadn’t felt since the Headmaster agreed last week that it would be a fantastic idea to lock Sirius in the same house that would kill him it could and Remus had to clench his jaw shut so tight he’s still not sure it didn’t splinter. And—oh, Harry. He still knows nothing, his friends will tell him nothing, Remus and Sirius have been forbidden to tell him anything, and he’s been on the receiving end of that enough times to know how it galls, how it festers like a wound.

Maybe we can try for next summer, Harry wrote. Remus can’t stop staring at it, the clipped letters so unlike James’, so hopeful in spite of his own grief, his own anger, the shadows creeping towards them like blood spilled. He hates it. He hates it.

Beside him, Sirius folds up a letter from Tonks and smacks Remus on the back of the head with it; the thing feels surprisingly heavy, stuffed with all that parchment. “Do you have to think so loud?” he asks. “I can hear the Remus that lives inside your head wringing his hands and twisting his underwear into knots over here, and it’s really interfering with my enjoyment of Cassiopeia right now.”

“Forgive me, I didn’t realize you were working on an astronomy career. Dropping it after fifth year will really look wonderful on your résumé.”

“I already knew where to find myself and Sagittarius and how to tell when something was in retrograde so I could lie my way through Divination. So, basically, everything that matters. See? Look at Mars up there—it’s telling me something,” says Sirius, angling his head up towards the darkening sky.

“Stomach troubles? Blight on the wheat crop? Ants in your bits? No, no—war. It’s war, isn’t it. Give me a cupcake.”

“It’s telling me Remus Lupin is an immature little tosser. It also seems to think you’re a slag of incomparable depravity. Uncanny, that.”

“Is that what you put on your Divs NEWT? The Prophet ought to hire you to do horoscopes once your name’s cleared, Pads,” he says before he can stop himself. The thought of Sirius being cleared is like the slim flicker of a candle that Remus cups between both hands so it won’t burn out; it’s not something he thinks about often, not something he will let himself think about often, but something to hold and hope for in the dark until he can use it to set fire to the kindling he gathers in his dreams. “You can run an advice column on the side and draw on personal experience. ‘You see, reader, I too know the pain of living with fleas in sensitive places. I too have been making that terrible “fucking serious” joke at every possible turn since I was seventeen.’”

“I haven’t done that once the entire time I’ve been back,” grumbles Sirius, knocking his knee into Remus’, “but I can start, if you missed it that badly.”

“No, thank you,” he sniffs.

“Maybe that’s how we could tell Harry. Make it easy on everyone involved.”

No. How could you even—no, oh my God, you’re disgusting.”

“No imagination, no spontaneity, no sense of adventure. Abysmal, Lupin.”

“You know, there was a time when I thought Azkaban robbed you of the ability to be inappropriate,” says Remus, twining his fingers through Sirius’ hair and tugging loosely. “I feel like I’ve won the lottery this summer, except, you know. Thinly veiled dick jokes and unkind allusions to my virility instead of Galleons.”

“I think it’s paid off great for both of us. You get all that and my hand down your pants.”

“Mm. I wasn’t complaining,” he says, smoothing Sirius’ hair out against his head. “My very own Mr. Rochester, but without the awful. And devastatingly attractive. But—still. That’s not how we’re telling Harry.”

“As opposed to how we told James? ‘Yes, mate, there’s a reason I’m naked in my flat with Remus and it’s exactly what you think. Happy New Year.’ You turned the color of a radish. You had roughly the same demeanor, too.”

“I had to cover myself with a tea kettle. I thought he was going to piss himself laughing, and then I thought he was never going to leave. And I’ve always thought that bit about sucking the chrome off a car bumper was unnecessary. Just, you know. For the record.”

“Well, I would know,” says Sirius, leering and then laughing when Remus elbows him sharply in the gut. “You’re probably right, I mean, you usually are. It’s a sickness.”

“One of the few you didn’t give me,” says Remus. “Where would you be without my witticisms and seasonal wool socks, I ask you.”

“Probably still in Arabella Figg’s attic.”

“Did she make you look at the cats?”

“God, yes,” he groans, and Remus can’t stifle his laugh. “She’s got—Christ, must be at least thirty of the things by now and a fucking tome of photos for each one. I’ve still got the names and identifying marks memorized, if you’re interested.”

“Poor old cornflake, it’s like you were really living in a cave again. The struggle never ends.”

“Shut up,” says Sirius, though he’s smiling as he pulls Remus’ head onto his shoulder. “When we move next week we can all sit around and guess Mrs. Figg’s cat names, or whether Remus is wearing any underwear today. It’ll be a team building exercise.” He yawns, and Remus closes his eyes and breathes in the last of the summer, the red earth, the tendrils of smoke on the wind, himself and Sirius and the drop of brightness they make in the night. He doesn’t want to leave. He would never say it because it doesn’t need saying, but he would do this forever if he could, if it weren’t for the war and the thousand other demands he feels so duty-bound to meet. His trunk is already packed with most of what they need; in a few weeks, his garden will begin to shrink, and wither, and go dark with the chill air until spring. Remus wonders if they’ll be back by then, if it could ever really be that easy.

“What were you thinking so bloody loud about, anyway?” Sirius asks, pressing his forefinger into an old, faded scar that runs nearly the length of Remus’ wrist to his forearm. He’s had it for so long he can’t remember how he got it.

“I was thinking how terrified I am of these bats. One of us gets rabies and we won’t be fighting the good fight for long.”

Sirius snorts. “Probably just Snapey swooping in on your territory, you know. I always told you he was just a few DNA whatsits away from being a bat.”

“You did. It’s a shame he’s not an Animagus, then we’d know if it’s completely baseless.”

“He’s too stupid for it, Moony, don’t give him that kind of credit, it’ll go straight to his beak. And besides—have you ever seen Snape and a bat in the same room? Didn’t think so,” says Sirius, and Remus laughs again, airy and unrestrained and so stupidly, irrevocably, unremittingly in love. Snape probably would carry rabies. “Are you actually afraid of anything? Besides the moon, I mean,” asks Sirius, watching him sideways with the quarter moon in his eyes, his legs bent off to the side.

Losing you, he thinks, immediately. Losing you again, losing Harry again, coming back to an empty house with empty hands. Fifteen years ago, he might have said he was afraid of being alone, but it’s been the reality of his quiet existence for so long now that he can’t fear the dead echoes or the cobwebs in the corners anymore, not really, but he’s not going to let that happen. They’re made of stronger stuff now, he and Sirius. They are.

“I’m terrified of men with excessive facial hair, you know,” says Remus, tucking the past away somewhere deep in his belly. “It makes me all squirmy. What about you? Got any left at all?”

“Losing you,” says Sirius, without even a flicker of hesitation, and Remus startles at the sound of it, hanging there between them. Sirius at twenty would never have admitted to that, either because he always took Remus’ love as a given or because he was simply too afraid to voice something so terrible because acknowledging it in the first place would mean the possibility of the fracture and the fall. Sirius at twenty would never have admitted fear of anything but old age and death in bed. “Losing Harry. Dementors. Dog catchers. Dreams. Burnt toast. Being helpless, I guess. Forgetting spells. Small spaces. Being trapped.”

Remus just pulls his fingers through Sirius’ hair, lets his skin speak for him; Sirius leans over, an arm around Remus’ waist and his nose sliding against his cheek, and does the same.

“Well, that’s—what, ten? You owe me nine more fears, Lupin.”

“Maybe I’m just not afraid of anything,” he says. “Maybe I’ve perfected the art of being fearless. Maybe Moody taught me his secrets while I was out on all those romantic missions fifteen years ago.”

“Maybe you’re a prick,” says Sirius, standing up and grabbing him by both hands, and Remus lets himself be pulled up and into him, hard. “Come on. I’ll ply you with wine and chocolate, and probably a lot of sex, if you play your cards right.”

“I don’t have to play anything with you, I’ve just got to look in your direction or ask you to pass the potatoes. Please don’t think I’m complaining. At all.” Then—he pauses by the garden, narrowing his eyes. “How did you even know I bought wine? If you’ve been into it already—”

“I was trying to find some envelopes. No, I didn’t touch it. Yes, it’s soppy and sweet and it makes me want to snog you into your fifty-first birthday.”

“Stop saying snog, it makes me all itchy.”

“Everything makes you itchy. Go pour me some wine and maybe I’ll take care of it.”

“And that’s it, is it?” asks Remus. “All it takes is bad wine and my worst underwear?”

“Any underwear,” answers Sirius, “or none at all. But yeah, that’s the idea.”

“Were you always this cheap?”

“I was always cheap for you,” says Sirius, grinning, pulling him past the violet starburst of clematis and into the house, his palms hot against the thin skin of Remus’ wrists. “Awfully presumptuous of you. Cabernet wouldn’t get my mouth near anyone else’s anything, you know.”

“I don’t actually know the difference between cabernet and anything else.”

“It’s part of that swotty, unassuming charm of yours,” says Sirius, shutting the door and pulling him sideways, kissing the odd smattering of freckles on his cheek while Remus busies himself with pulling out oversized cocoa mugs in lieu of all the wine glasses he doesn’t own, because why would he. “You’re lovely. Yellow jumpers and all.”

It turns out cabernet tastes a little like jam with an odd peppery undercurrent, sweet and heavy and much, much better in Sirius’ mouth than his. They sit on the couch tipping it into their mugs while they flip through the few grainy channels Remus gets on his ancient television, his bare feet sliding against Sirius’ legs, his wine-lazy mouth murmuring over the soft, soft skin of his neck, so many words caught up in the tangle of their tongues when they kiss.

During a cereal commercial that’s only serving as background noise at this point, Remus leaves an impressive half-moon mark on Sirius’ chest with his teeth, their cheeks as pink as the last of the wine, and it’s at this junction—while Sirius is examining it with wonder—that he decides one-hundred percent delicious and nutritious whole grain isn’t nearly as interesting as the one-hundred percent delicious and nutritious Sirius on his couch, and when he says as much on the way upstairs, Sirius shoves him against the wall and kisses him so thrillingly hard that Remus comes away from it lightheaded and a little insane. He makes a halfhearted attempt at closing the curtains in his bedroom, feeling the last of his propriety shrug its shoulders and die when he leaves one half-open to focus instead on pulling Sirius’ shirt off, his hands sliding up his chest and over his shoulders with all the fervor of familiarity.

“You’re so easy,” says Sirius, pressed up against his back, his hands splayed out on Remus’ belly. He brushes a kiss to each bump of vertebrae, sucks them hard enough to make him shiver, slick skin cooling in the August air with ghost sensations of teeth trembling up his spine. “It’s criminally attractive, you know. Does things to my insides,” he says, falling into the hallow-curve of Remus’ back and then turning him around by the hips, resting his chin against the soft skin below his belly button, dipping his tongue into his navel, hot and hard.

“I’d say it’s because I quite fancy you,” says Remus, breathless, his eyes watching Sirius’ eyes at his stomach, “but I wouldn’t want it to go to your head. I know how you get with encouragement, you—ah—you tart.” His belly trembles and clenches when Sirius kisses him there, trembles for a different reason when they pull the rest of their clothes off and Sirius drags his mouth along the insides of his thighs until he’s shaking with it, hooking a knee around his shoulder to get him closer; seeing Sirius naked was always a head rush, the secret, shadowed curls and hollows of his body making Remus’ toes go numb long after novelty wore off. It makes his mouth go dry, makes him ache to set himself against Sirius, so he does just that: he reaches up to Sirius above him and pulls him down to drag their skin together, chests and hips and hands stuttering like broken verbs. He arches his back and moans something into Sirius’ shoulder when he strokes his hand up and down the length of his cock, hot and slow, slow, slow, thumb dragging across the tip and under.

He always feels so open with Sirius, his own body pliant and yielding in a way it rarely is at any other time, made more beautiful, he thinks, the same way Sirius’ is with the heat pressed between them and their skin jammed together tight, taking Sirius’ cock in his own fingers and holding it against him as he strokes gently, guiding it inside, wanting him so much deeper, so much closer. “Come on,” he mutters, arching up slightly, his face flushed, “come on.”

“You could stand to learn some patience,” Sirius laughs, and pushes inside him, hissing the last of it out between his teeth. Remus pulls him down by the shoulders again, pulls him in deeper, his thighs tightening at Sirius’ waist, a heel at the base of his spine urging him on, gasping into the dizzying, secret space between them when Sirius grabs a fistful of his hair and kisses him hard, his mouth catching at the divot of his throat, making him groan and shove his hips up against Sirius, swearing sharply as he moves, still not deep enough.

It still surprises him like this, sometimes, that they’ve fit themselves together the way they do, rough elbows and new pink scars and bony wrists moving together in cohesion, coiled around each other like vines, all the time bleeding out of them until there’s nothing but their bodies, their hearts. Remus digs a heel into the mattress and surges up into him, groaning something irrelevant when Sirius thrusts in hard, gasping tight in the back of his throat, and Remus wants to swallow it, wants to draw this whole moment and feel it pour into him, hold it on his tongue, hide it away, safe, in his belly.

“Like this?” Sirius whispers, reaching down and brushing Remus’ hand out of the way, wrapping his fingers around his cock, slick and electric-sharp, the ridges of his palm stroking roughly over him when Sirius’ grip tightens, making his hips buck up.

Remus slides his hands over Sirius’ shoulderblades, feels the shudder rip through his spine beneath his fingertips as he thrusts harder, pulls a palm through the sweat-damp hair at the nape of Sirius’ neck. “Awfully proud of yourself,” he breathes, “aren’t—aren’t you.”

“With good reason,” Sirius laughs, leaning down to kiss him, teeth scraping his bottom lip, “you’re fucking beautiful,” his breath catching, and Remus chokes on whatever he was going to say when Sirius’ hand shifts on his cock, white-hot shocks coiling up deep inside him, tighter and tighter.

Their bodies move like a litany, nothing in the world but this, nothing but the rhythm of their breath and pulse and hips, and Remus, reaching down to clasp a hand around Sirius’ on his cock, urging him faster, faster, finds his eyes and holds them until Sirius kisses him again, flicking the tip of his tongue between his lips, sliding quickly against his own. He can feel himself getting close, like his whole body is lit under Sirius, and it’s so good, sparking inside him like cloudbursts when he takes Sirius’ face roughly between both his hands and kisses him, grips his biceps so tight it turns the skin yellow-white where his fingers clutch him hard. “Sirius—there’s only one thing I’m really afraid of anymore,” he half-groans, reed-thin, raw with it. “And you know, God, you know what it is.”

“I love you,” says Sirius, half-moaned, half-stuttered into the crook of his shoulder, and Remus thinks that nothing has ever been ever more beautiful than Sirius’ hands, his voice. “Moony. Remus, oh—oh—I love you.”

He hisses when Sirius shifts his hips, moving faster, and Remus flows up into him like a river coursing straight to his center, watches his face flicker with want, and love, the hope Remus knows is always there, buried in his chest beneath Remus’ hands, the kinetic-hot rush swelling up heavy in his belly. Sirius comes with his teeth on Remus’ shoulder, a warm thrill of wetness deep inside him and his hand faltering on Remus’ cock; he tightens his thighs and pulls him in, holding him through the fade out, thinking he could do this forever—he could stay like this forever, tangled with Sirius, held together with new scars and patched trousers and the sheer inviolable strength of their own bodies, push to the core of each other, freeze this entire thing—the summer heat, their beating hearts—and keep it just like this, live in it forever.

Another few breaths, another few heartbeats, and Remus follows with Sirius’ hand moving erratically over his cock, arching up and clutching at his back while the other hand reaches back for the headboard, gasping, Sirius—fuck—yes, yes, all the tension inside him bursting, the rush and the spill, pulsing wildly through his limbs in waves, Sirius’ mouth pressed to his throat to feel every ragged syllable thrumming against his lips. He sees Sirius smile in the blur of it, watching him over the frantic too-fast hammering of his heart as his hips slow, and Remus grins drunkenly back at him, leans up on an elbow to kiss him even as he takes mouthful after mouthful of air into his starved lungs, holding him as close as he can.

“Nothing to say?” Sirius asks him, moving to lie beside him, one hand sliding across his belly. It’s as easy as breathing, this. “Did I finally snap your brain in half somewhere along the way?”

“Shut up,” says Remus, happily, and stretches out against him, feeling loose and wild and new, as if he’s been shaken and jumbled back together again. “I’m basking. Just because you don’t know how.” He runs a palm over Sirius’ waist, half-numb with love and exhaustion.

It’s warm enough that they only wrap themselves in each other and the dusty-dry August heat instead of the quilt, quiet now in the hazy late season of ash and haze he used to like best when they were young. Remus has always loved this as much as sex, the warm curled-in softness like a cocoon, talking and not talking, touching and touching and touching. Anything could be happening out there right now, and all that matters is his hand curved around the slight dip of Sirius’ waist, the fingers tickling the nape of his neck, pressing him close to Sirius’ shoulder. They are their own island, here.

“You know what I’m going to do?” asks Sirius, trailing his fingertips over Remus’ collarbone, loping downwards, towards his heart.

“I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”

“I’m going to build you a cottage,” says Sirius, kissing Remus’ forehead and settling back down on the pillow. “As soon as this is all done and finished for the last time, I’m going to marry the hell out of you and buy some land and flop down on it and dig you a garden the size of Dorset.”

It scares him a little, that they’re actually talking about this now; the first time around, especially after early spring of their last year together, they stopped letting themselves think about a future. Neither one of them knew how to put two and two together anymore to make it happen, so it turned into a bedtime story, something his mother might have told him or they might have believed a long time ago, something that happened for other people but not for them. Like a mortgage or dinner parties or understanding the difference between good whisky and bad whisky. Silk dress robes you’ll never grow into because you’re just too warped and you’re probably not going to live long enough, anyway.

But here it is now, growing up between the cracks like violets through crumbling concrete. When this is over, they can have a house and their own green patch of earth, they can take trips to the sea, they can have a spare room for Harry. They can tell Cornelius Fudge they’ve been fucking since the Ministry was bumbling in all the wrong places with its thumbs up its arse. They can have each other. They can do it right this time.

“I want a big kitchen. And an apple tree. I really, really want an apple tree,” he says, smiling almost dizzily, rubbing his thumb in circles across the heel of Sirius’ palm. “And I’ll learn to bake pie. Really, I mean. Every night of the week. I’ll be domesticated. Like a goat.”

“You can be my trophy wife,” says Sirius, pressing his knuckles to Remus’ lips where he flicks his tongue out against the skin. “I’ll build you a whole fucking bakery You can flit about in an apron and those kneesocks we both know you’ve got and shag me wildly in the doorway. And the garden.”

“Are you going to buy me one of those Muggle rings, in the little plastic bubbles?”

“The ones you get from the machines?”

“Those ones,” he answers, laughing.

“You can have one for our anniversary, if you’re a good boy,” says Sirius, laughing when Remus bites his nose and sinks into his arms, murmuring, I love you, arsehole, right below Sirius’ ear.

And, yes—this time, they can make it work. Remus knows he’s going to do it right if he has to bend the future into submission with all the strength he’s got in his brittle hands; he’s going to take it and hold on and he’s never going to let go.

The quiet gives way to a sweet lull which gives way to drowsiness, and Remus is drifting, halfway to dreaming already when he feels Sirius shift closer to him one the bed, brushing his thumb over Remus’ lips; when he opens his eyes, he finds Sirius watching him with his own wide open, something sad and almost desperate pooling in the shadows of his face when Remus touches him there, his fingers cool against his pale cheek.

“You know I’d come back to haunt you,” says Sirius, soft as a dream, his January eyes dagger-blunt in the dark of the bedroom.

Remus stares, swears he can feel his heartbeat in his own skin. Back a million years, a boy again, both of them boys again, a thousand bad decisions unmade, a thousand things he never said that he will say now, because those things are meant to be said and when you’ve got something to say, you damn well say it. You don’t let someone wonder if you love them. You don’t let them worry that you’ll forget.

“Promise me,” he whispers, seventeen years old again, busting open his soul under careful hands.

Sirius says, “Always.”

It’s raining in London on the Monday morning they unlock the great oak double doors of Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place, the water staining their hair dark and sliding down the storm-grey siding of the three-story Victorian Gothic while Remus hauls his trunk inside and sets it on the creaky hardwood. Roses pepper the walk, wine-dark, their leggy stalks a decade untended; he plucks one out and catches his forefinger on a thorn, larger than his dog roses at home, and tucks it into one of Sirius’ belt loops as he’s lighting the lamps. It turns his smile a little less tight, if only for that moment. Remus wipes the blood on his trousers.

The house is ancient, alive in a way Remus never could have expected even when he was young and Sirius would tell him stories about the shadows looming where they shouldn’t be, or the house-elf who crept into his room while he slept. The floorboards groan with every step he takes, as if they would give way and cut him from beneath; in the hallway leading to the kitchen, he can see the violent gleam of old silver, the dim light curving around the teeth of swords. Sirius tenses at the jaw, folding in on himself as he schools his expression into something hard and remote, faltering only slightly when Remus runs a hand down his spine, his fingers forging a careful ballast in the small of his back.

Sirius did the same for him once, the summer after seventh year when Remus moved in with him. He stood at the top of the stairs with his trunk full of the few things he didn’t already have at Sirius’ flat, holding his own key in his hand and feeling strangely that he was about to step over the threshold of adulthood, which apparently included overcooked eggs and shared T-shirts and too much laundry and toilet-cleaning and a lot of sex on the weary, wobbly couch. When he opened the door, Sirius peeked around the corner and smiled brighter than the dandelion burst of midmorning light while Remus stood just outside his—their—flat, watching him through the doorway, about to step into the rest of his life.

You’re home, said Sirius, reaching out to grab Remus’ trunk before he could launch it inside himself. What’re you standing there for, you nonce. Oh—ohhhh, Moony, Moony. I see what this is about.

Do you.

You want me to carry you over the threshold, Sirius nodded, his grin turning slightly manic. You’re waiting for me to sweep you up in my toned, rock-hard arms and—

Get out of the way, said Remus, swallowing his laughter and closing the door behind him, nudging his trunk with the toe of his shoe before Sirius could do anything that was likely to dislocate something delicate. Sirius just stood still in the doorway, smiling at him almost absently until Remus asked if he’d ruptured something in his frontal lobe or if Sirius would like a physical hand in his underwear in addition to the mental one.

I’m just happy you’re here, he said, shy in a way Remus had never seen him look before. He slid his hand down Remus’ spine and into the small of his back, pressing him closer when Remus kissed him softly on the cheek and again on the nose.

You make me happy, Remus told him, looking around at his coat hanging next to Sirius’ coat on the rack, his secondhand teacups sitting in the sink with Sirius’ mismatched blue plates, his books, their photos, the old Wireless, the red geranium growing in its pot on the windowsill, and he felt happier than he might have ever been for the way they filled their flat from corner to corner. “You make me so happy it’s a little nauseating, actually,” he murmured into his shoulder, and Sirius kissed him with wide, thrilled eyes, and then—then, Remus was home.

It’s not until they’re putting their clothes away in the dresser that used to be Orion Black’s, Remus’ shirts next to Sirius’ in the drawers the way they should be, that he realizes Sirius never had a home until their London flat with the beige walls and the pots and pans hanging over the stove. That he hardly had one either, until they coaxed his crooked old house to life again this summer.

“Well,” says Sirius, pulling his hand through his hair a little too hard, “I’m afraid there’s only one bed in here, mate. I suppose you’re just going to have to share with me under this small, thin, flimsy quilt.”

“Awfully drafty in here, too. It’s going to be rough on my delicate skin.”

“And I always get so cold in the night,” says Sirius, smiling ruefully, betrayed only by the brief flash in his eyes. “I just don’t know what I’ll do, Moony.”

“Oh, dear. Here we are, two fit blokes with chronic insomnia sleeping on the same cold, hard bed, and I seem to have tragically misplaced all my pyjamas.”

“Unfortunate, indeed, given that I sleep in the nude.”

“And to think—is this your parents’ marriage bed?”

“Sturdy, isn’t it,” says Sirius, the edges of his teeth glinting over his bottom lip. He looks—not happy, but better than he did when they first got here, not so pinched in around the edges with the light from the window blading onto his skin, here. “Look at it, all Victorian and lonesome. Proper, upright thing like this, it’s probably never taken a pounding. All those creaky springs, that enormous headboard—it’s the picture of pureblood sensibility.”

“Oh, dear,” Remus whispers again, exaggeratedly trailing his fingers along the immaculate mulberry-spill of the musty quilt, grinning honey-slow until he hears a strange rustling coming from the landing, a murky whisper, as if something is slipping between the shadows, taking its first breaths in the moldering darkness. As if someone is sniffing them out.

When he steps out of the bedroom, the first words Walburga Black ever speaks to him are, Half-breed, inhuman waste, filthy animal trespassing in my halls, I will kill you, I will see you burn, biting like a knife. He’s heard worse and from more threatening than a portrait woken from her decade-long slumber, but the chill that settles in his belly and dissolves through his limbs will not be warmed, not even when her voice stops bouncing off the plaster walls, not even when his ears stop ringing with the echo of pureblood venom.

Sirius takes a box cutter to the canvas, and then a steak knife, all while she howls into his ears, Shame of my flesh, worthless wretch, would that you had never drawn breath at all, and he chisels at it viciously until Remus wraps his hands over his shoulders and leads him away, silent and quivering, like a wounded animal.

She screams and screams.

Two weeks fade to dust in a fog of cleaning and London rain, sleeplessness breeding exhaustion breeding listless, quiet tension. The first letters arrive from Dumbledore, discussing potential meetings with vampires and werewolves—his usefulness to the Headmaster and the Order, apparently, has not changed even after nearly seventeen years spent honing skills sharper than most Aurors—and informing them of new arrivals in clever code; Molly Weasley and her family are among the first to visit, and then Mundungus Fletcher, who surveys the house and its contents with frank appraisal and makes off with a bone china tea set worth its weight in gold while Sirius shrugs and looks the other way. Mundungus tells Sirius he looks good on the way out in apparent recompense; Remus tries not to hate him for it and is mostly unsuccessful, but he’s nothing if not practiced at tucking his spite away from the rest of the world.

They touch each other always, in the hallways, in the kitchen, on the sofa in the library, which is the only room in the house other than the kitchen and their stolen bedroom that Remus can stand at all, the only thing that reminds him they’re not just very firm, very fleshy ghosts sometimes, their hungry mouths, their hands yearning for each other wherever they may be. They make love on a bed that could fit them both three times over and lie awake most of the night while they try not to listen to the shuffling in the hallway and the walls, the air here crafted of asphalt and concrete and stale with cobwebs and oily furniture polish, nothing like the loamy green Kent nights that soothed them both to sleep. It always gives him a strange feeling of displacement, to be in a house that’s so big they don’t always know where the other is or what they’re doing, where the only thing they can hear from the bedroom window is the sound of speeding cars and cats rummaging for food in the alley.

Every night, they fall asleep wound around each other, in the space on their bed that is theirs and theirs alone. It’s not much, but it’s a breathing space, and Remus holds on with both hands. Holds on with all the strength his weathered palms will allow.

This is how it goes:

Remus wakes up early every morning. He slips himself into the skin of a wiser man than he really is, a stronger man, drapes himself in the visage of the warrior he isn’t and never has been just to get them through the monotony of the day locked away in this crypt. He makes breakfast with Sirius, with Molly too when the Weasleys come to stay; the house gets louder, fuller, brighter, lived-in, and Remus feels awkward and lumpy and unpracticed with people the way he always does, a little like an adolescent rhinoceros, as James once told him, but it’s so much easier for Sirius to stretch out of the cloistered shell he retreats into so often when they’re around that he lingers at the dinner table every night just for the vague semblance of slightly dysfunctional normalcy. Molly sometimes looks at Sirius with an undisguised disapproval that Sirius does nothing to dissuade, and once or twice Remus feels that same glare leveled at him when Harry’s name comes up, his head bent close to Sirius’ over a letter or a bit of parchment, but she’s kind enough to him and he does his best to ignore it.

He doesn’t like it, any of it, but it’s not as if anyone else does, either. It’s not like he’s ever had a choice.

Even for the chatter of a full house, Remus feels such a sunny joy sweep over him when Tonks and Fleur carry a suitcase and a few bags of groceries into the kitchen one August afternoon that his throat tightens with it until he swallows it, presses it into that safe spot in his belly. It won’t do to get weepy in his tea over seeing familiar faces he knows for certain actually like them and aren’t just here to tolerate at a distance or steal things.

“Hullo,” he says, and Fleur’s oddly distracted smile turns more genuine. “I’ll have you know I brought my red jumper. Next I’ll be smoking unfiltered cigarettes and getting embarrassing tattoos fifteen years late.”

“A proper midlife crisis for you, then,” says Fleur, with a sharp, amused noise. “A bit early for that, no?”

“Oh, yes. I always like to do things early, it gives me more time to be all regretful and embarrassed about it later.”

For a moment, she looks just about as absurdly, inordinately happy as Remus feels, leaning up to kiss both his cheeks, her lips red as a slash and her skin as sun-soaked as Tonks’, but then she pats his shoulder and starts putting groceries away without another word, shoving her hair off her shoulder and setting herself straight to work.

“Oh, don’t mind her,” says Tonks, nudging the suitcase over to the table and very nearly falling all over it in the process, “she’s having herself a colossal sulk because she thinks no one likes her.”

“I do not care if they like me or not,” Fleur snaps. She sets down a jar of jam with rather too much force. “It is the lack of, of decency. Men are stupid, yes. But then I get it from them too. Like it is all my fault.”

“We like you,” says Remus, because he isn’t sure what else one is supposed to say in this sort of situation. He finds it difficult to understand how you could dislike a woman who looks as if she could take out an entire cell block at Azkaban and come out smelling like honeysuckle and tea roses with her eyeliner still intact. Fleur bites with all thirty-two teeth, but she still sees great value in deformed pies and patched-up things and blows cigarette smoke out her nose; Remus thinks she is easily one of the most delightful people he’s ever known.

“And, you know, mon trognon. Between you, me, Remus, and these walls that no doubt have ears and eyes and maybe even a sense of self, I’ve got a bit of a thing for you,” Tonks hisses in a stage whisper, folding up the paper bag and shoving it into the cabinet under the sink. “In fact, my thing is greater than or equal to the combined efforts of the entire Weasley clan. I’ve done the math, don’t bother me about it.”

“You are ridiculous. You are completely daft,” murmurs Fleur, but she’s smiling now, her fingers twisting up in the wispy pink hair at the back of Tonks’ head with all the ease of habit; she doesn’t even have to look at her to know where to touch, how to soothe. “But I love you anyway. Nymphadora,” she says, rolling the name around like honey on her tongue.

“I hate it when you make my name sound good.” Tonks leans over and kisses her, pulls out two chairs; Remus pours more tea and starts to make apologies for only having bags from home when Tonks kicks him, not even bothering to try and disguise it as an accident. It’s like having a sudden bit of spring blooming in the coolness of the kitchen gloom, both of them at the table with him, stirring sugar into their tea.

“Was it—Molly?” he asks, very carefully.

“She thinks I am, am—”

“Frivolous and bothersome,” Tonks says, her mouth almost disappearing into her face with irritation. Andromeda’s, Remus remembers, used to do the same thing. It might still. “Apparently she also thinks Fleur’s trying to get fresh with one—or maybe all—of her sons.”

He can’t quite suppress a laugh, and neither can they, and—well, it’s a little easier to breathe when you’re not quite so tethered to the sharpness of the shadows. “And what did you say to that?”

“Well, I mean, I was trying so hard not to piss myself laughing I couldn’t do much but blink and glue my jaw shut, and she was gone before I could let her know that, by the by, I actually spend a significant amount of my free time naked with her, in various places, in various compromising positions—you get the idea. Imagine it might have smoothed a feather or twelve, though.”

Remus does a really great job of choking on a stray dust mote while Fleur laughs so hard she snorts, and Tonks, who seems to have anticipated it, reaches over to pat him helpfully on the back. “Lovely woman,” she mutters, “I’m sure she’ll come around.”

“It is fine,” says Fleur. “I will just, what did you say? Stick my tongue in your ear at dinner. Give her something else to think about.” She pours another cup of tea and smiles at Remus, or at least he thinks she does. His eyes are still watering a little, so it’s hard to tell. “Where is Sirius? I will take him tea.”

“He’s upstairs, trying to salvage the carpet in the study,” Remus tells her, clearing his throat. “Here—two sugars and cream, I know, it’s vile. He’ll be happy to see you.”

She’s still laughing when she stands to smooth out her skirt and backs out the kitchen door, but Tonks’ smile falters slightly after she takes another drink, listening to the wobbly door flap its way back and forth until it shuts. “You know, it really doesn’t help that the blood in every man’s body seems to immediately rush downwards when she so much as sniffles. And then they act like babies with dirty nappies when she doesn’t care. It’s pathetic. No offense.”

“None taken at all.”

“Anyway. Road bumps aside, how is that gorgeous paramour of yours with the terrible reputation? We bought him an obscene amount of truffles.”

“The dark kind?” asks Remus, feeling his mouth quirk.

“What else?”

“Are you trying to muscle in on my territory, Tonks?”

“Oh my God,” she laughs, a bright peal of bells, and Remus laughs with her, wants to wrap it around himself for the way it makes him feel a little younger, lighter. “Oh my God, I can’t believe you said that. I’m telling Mum. By the way, she wants to know if you two still like pumpkin pasties so she can send some along, and you know how she feels about baking desserts. She’s got to be willing to take a bullet for you first.”

“She can’t come herself?”

Tonks shakes her head, looking down into her teacup again, a small frown unfurling across her thin eyebrows. “She can’t. She wants to, she wants to see you both, but since she’s not with the Order, and Dumbledore said—”

“Of course,” Remus answers. “Say no more.”

“Really, Remus—how are you two? How is he?” she presses, cocking her head. The dim kitchen turns her eyes even darker, brown as burnished cherry wood.

“Better than I was afraid of,” says Remus. “Worse than I’d hoped. Isn’t that how it always goes?”

“I’m amazed you’ve not both gone mad, between the cleaning and the décor,” she says. “We can talk about my problems, if you’d rather. I’ve got loads of problems.”

“Such as?”

“You and your miserable mug. It’s going to be all right,” she says, squeezing his hand so firmly that he can almost believe her—that there’s a cottage and a garden waiting for them at the end of all this like there is for her and Fleur, no what-ifs or maybes blocking the road from here to there. “As soon as you can, you’ll get him out of here and sell this place and kick Fudge’s sorry arse up between his shoulders—I’ve got a few others we’ll have to take out hits on, too—and you two can bring us pie and shag all over your house like the mad dogs you are. Pun intended, I spent a while coming up with that one.”

“It isn’t going to get easier, though,” he says, as gently as he can. It’s not that he doesn’t want to believe it—it’s that it still scares him that he can. “It’s best not to think about that right now.”

“Remus—”

“I’m tired,” he says more harshly than he means, and he feels suddenly loose as a leaf in the late summer wind, letting something gouge him out that rarely overflows. “I’m just—he was happy, we were happy in Kent, and this is—I know it’s only been a few weeks, I know there’s a war on, but Christ, I hate this. And it’s selfish and I know it, but I just. I’m tired of eating scraps and getting told to be grateful for it, I’m tired of watching Sirius get even less, I’m tired of having things for five minutes and then having them taken away, I’m tired of waiting out a happy ending on one hand and then waiting for the explosion on the other. I can’t, I can’t even let myself pretend we’ll have anything when this is over because that just means one less thing in my life if it doesn’t happen and one of us catches the broad side of a curse.”

Tonks looks up at him, wide-eyed and young in a way Remus isn’t sure he ever was, or maybe that’s exactly how he looked the first time around, so certain of the steady rhythm of his own heart and the far shores of so many tomorrows, so many dreams, that he never expected the crash when it came. It’s been so long since he let himself believe in a future that it scares him to even consider it; he hopes, for whatever good his hope has ever done, that Tonks and Fleur never harbor even the slightest doubts in their hearts. He wants to grab her by the shoulders and tell her to take what she wants and run and never, never let go.

“Remus, I don’t think you even know what selfish is. At best, I’m guessing you’ve only got a passing acquaintance,” says Tonks, softly, slowly. “And you can’t think that way. You can’t. If you don’t have something to hope for, what the hell is it worth? You can’t go through life expecting everything you love or everything you want to get blown to bits at every turn.”

“You’d be surprised how very much I can,” he says. The wry smile wavering on his mouth is probably what does it: Tonks turns him to face her, a little rougher than is necessary, and flicks him on the forehead, the nose, and then between the eyes for good measure. He checks to make sure it’s not some secret Auror trick and he’s not bleeding out his nose or ears.

“That hurt—”

“Shut up, Remus,” she says, glaring with astonishing venom for someone he used to babysit frequently and who, at twenty-two, still only comes up to his chest. “No—shut your damn mouth, you’re going to listen to me. I’m not going to act like I know everything that happened back then, or like I always understand you, because I don’t, but I do know the two of you did some things wrong, and then—now—you’ve done a lot of things right. You’ve got something to keep. You’ve got a man up there, probably losing a battle with doxies as we speak, who loves you like a bloody goose loves honking, and I know you’re completely mental for him, too, so if you can’t let yourself believe it, do it for him, because God knows he needs you to, and frankly, so do we. I don’t want to hear about your plans for an early grave, Remus, and if either one of you gets yourselves exploded or cursed inside-out or Fleur and I have to name any of our children in your honor because you arseholes couldn’t be bothered to stay alive, I swear to God, I will plunge myself neck-deep into the Dark Arts just so I can resurrect your mangled corpses and have the pleasure of killing you myself.”

She continues to glare and glare; Remus takes a drink of tea and feels slightly limp, as if he’s just been put through a cold-water wash on the highest speed. “Sometimes I forget how brilliant that head of yours is,” he says, “and then you remind me.”

“You could have just asked. I’d have told you what a spiffing lass I am. Or you could have asked my mum.”

“Still—thanks. When Sirius builds me a cottage with a working oven you’ll be first on my list for biscuits.”

“You’re not the only one who spent years and years missing him, you know,” says Tonks, a tiny crease between her eyebrows. “Might want to keep that in mind when you’re making me some biccies.”

“Er. Noted, I suppose.”

“You two are absolutely barking, you know that? And don’t mention it,” she says, going for her tea again, the anger flowing out of her like air. “Hey—speaking of children and names and what-all—why is it that I can transfigure a cabbage into a seven-layer torte, but I can’t, y’know—swish, flick—and boom, pregnant?”

“You’re asking the important questions, Tonks,” says Remus, laughing weakly. A little quieter, a little throatier, he says, “I don’t actually have any idea what I’m doing, you know.”

“You plank,” she says, smiling fondly over the last of her tea, shaking her head so her hair bounces back and forth, back and forth. “I think that’s all love ever really is, Remus. You make it up as you go along.”

To say dinner that night is an incomparable disaster would be an understatement tantamount to saying the Daily Prophet is full of lies or fire is kind of hot. Moody starts off by giving one of the Weasley twins a lecture demonstrating, in great detail, why a man’s trouser pockets are no place for a wand, resulting in diminished appetites for all in the vicinity; someone sets off Walburga Black’s portrait on the way downstairs, who immediately starts screaming about Sirius; another of the Weasley boys tells Fleur she’s fairly gorgeous, to which Fleur responds, “I know that,” thus permanently securing her position on Molly’s Least Favorite People List, somewhere in the nebulous territory below Sirius and above Mundungus; and it’s at this junction that Fleur asks Ron to pass the jam, Ron gapes at her for a full twelve seconds, and then Sirius gets up, grabs it, and hands it to her himself with applause from Tonks, who kisses him on the cheek and shoots a gesture at Remus that turns him the color of overripe tomatoes, but it seems to cheer Sirius for the rest of the meal.

Things go a bit quieter from there, and the ship might have righted itself after all that if it hadn’t been for Fleur getting up to clear her plate and then loping back into the dining room like a blonde goddess of retribution, draping her hands over Tonks’ shoulders and sliding them down until her arms are resting over her breasts and her chin is resting right on top of her pink head, leaving virtually nothing to suggestion when she says, “You do not mind if I borrow Tonks for a bit, no?”

Mundungus opens his mouth; Fleur answers for him. “No, you don’t.”

Sirius doesn’t even bother trying to disguise his laughter, though Remus makes a slight effort—no much of one, granted, but it dies to nothing when they start discussing tactics, allies, who’s where and who can be trusted and who’s going to be the sacrificial lamb this week. Remus listens, nods, makes encouraging noises where appropriate; Sirius is silent for nearly the duration, knowing exactly where he will be and what he will not be doing for the entirety of these missions: sitting quietly, leafing through books for research he knows they don’t actually need, small, declawed, shoved away into the corners where he can be fed and watered and no one has to trip over him or mistake him for anything but a relic from a half-forgotten war, a wild animal to poke at between the bars. It’s probably not much different from what his existence in this house has always been.

Hours later, as the August sun is crouching down into the streetlights and the rows of glassy square birdhouses along the road, so much different from the fluid curve of the earth they used to watch every evening in Kent, Remus finds him staring out their bedroom window from the bench beneath the glass, his shoulders slack, his eyes narrowed softly, as if he would admonish the sky for being so blue. Remus sits beside him until dark. They don’t speak much, but Remus clasps their hands together and writes everything that’s sayable and everything that’s unsayable into the long lines of their palms, into the sound of their hearts opening and closing, opening and closing, opening and closing.

Harry comes to them by way of air, and with him comes a bright burst of warmth through the sullen halls of Number Twelve; even for the darkness behind his eyes, even for the sudden storms that erupt from the sad line of his mouth, happiness seeps into Sirius like a well at having him there, safe and close, both of them so starved for each other in a way that makes Remus slip out of the room when Harry takes to sitting with them in the library after dinner or having cocoa in the kitchen while they pore over old maps and older photographs, but Harry starts making a point of bringing three cups of tea to their library visits every night so that Remus is forced to stay and drink it, and Sirius throws an arm around his shoulders at quiet intervals so he can’t pull any quick disappearing acts. He feels twelve years old again, a lost little boy running from the warmth of the fire he so desperately craves until he learns to let his voice melt into theirs, and not be burned.

It’s on one of these nights when Sirius goes upstairs to feed Buckbeak and leaves him alone with Harry, telling him about the kelpies down in the lake at home and then lapsing into a sleepy, cotton-cozy stillness with their tea. Remus is just thinking distantly that this might be the happiest they’ve been since they left Kent when Harry hides his mouth in his teacup and says, “I’m not, you know. Blind.”

The shock of it is a little like being back in his old office almost two years ago when Harry asked him about Sirius Black, which—well. But Harry is looking at him with something like happiness and something like fear both struggling across his young face, and Remus feels a fresh surge of guilt rush through him now that they’ve kept this from him too, stowed away the love they have and never shared it with him even once. He clutches his tea between his knees and stares down at the library table, his corner heavy with scratches from what he assumes were Sirius’ Impressionist years, curvy and vaguely crude if you squint just right; Harry is still watching him from across the sofa looking younger than Remus thinks he’s ever seen him look, and, God, but he wants to pick him up and wring the sorrow right out of him, wants to peel away the troubles no fifteen-year-old boy should have, though he’s not exactly an expert at that, having hardly been one himself. This is what he needs Sirius for.

“I—I’m sorry,” he says, feeling more awkward than he has in a very long time. His hands look too big when he twines his fingers together. “I just thought it was his to tell you. But we should have.”

“No, I mean—it’s all right, I didn’t mean, I’m not—I’m not angry that you didn’t tell me,” says Harry, his eyes wide, mossy river-green just like Lily’s used to be, though Remus never saw her look out of them with that bright uncertainty, not even once. “I was just wondering when you might. It makes me happy, you know. That you’ve got each other.” He toys with the handle of his teacup for a moment before looking up again and asking, “Were you always…?”

There are probably a hundred different ways Remus could finish that sentence. Were you always together? In love? Terminally stupid? Inseparable? Always arguing over the crossword? Always flopping over and napping on each other? Two threads split from the same spool? So tangled up you’re never getting untangled? The answer to any of those would be yes, so that’s exactly what Remus tells him.

“Yes,” he answers, “always.” When Harry smiles at him, Remus feels brave in a way he’s not sure he ever has with the boy, like he could crack open his chest just a little and give him one of those glittering, golden things he’s kept locked up inside for so long. “We were seventeen,” Remus says suddenly, jumping off the deep end before he can let himself think about it too hard. This is what he needs Sirius for, too. “It took a long time, actually. To just let things happen.”

“Why?”

“Because your godfather is remarkably stupid for such a brilliant man,” says Remus, grinning back at him. “Or—well, we both were. Stupid. I’m at least half to blame for it taking so long, I suppose, but after that, it just sort of unfolded. Your parents happened a little like that, too.”

Harry goes quiet for a moment, and then asks, “So, did you—you knew me, too? When I was little, I mean.”

“Of course,” says Remus, except—well, that doesn’t really cover it, now does it. “I changed a lot of your nappies, actually,” he says, taking a deep, shaky breath. “Your—James and Lily used to leave you with us, sometimes. Free babysitting. You liked mashed potatoes. I’d—I used to read to you, to get you to sleep.”

The old wall clock counts out its seconds across the room, and Remus absurdly wishes he’d brought the one Sirius charmed from home, three days from the full moon he’ll spend with Padfoot in the large cellar. Right now, its enchanted hand would be demanding he watch bad television and have a mug of cocoa. But even for as nervous as he is, it’s almost a relief to be talking about this with someone, to be talking to Harry about this; fourteen years ago, just after the cold November funeral as the fire flickered its last breaths in the grate, Remus realized he had never understood the meaning of gone until he had no one left to share any of these things with, that they would sit inside his battered leather trunk for the rest of his life and dim to an old, sickly sepia, just like the rest of him. Having them again—the sadness and the happiness instead of only the memory of both—is dizzying, like blood tingling back into limbs unused for years and years.

“What was my favorite?” asks Harry, standing from the floor to take a seat beside him on the sofa, almost reverent, almost breathless. Remus pulls another splinter from his heart and feels it throb as Harry watches him, hungry for anything, and Remus hates this for him, that he should know such adult agony, such adult fears before the sweetness of childhood or even his own history. He can at least give him this much.

“Well, you liked most everything,” says Remus, “but you were especially fond of Teeny-Tiny and Peter Rabbit. I used to get Sirius to do the voices. He specialized in disgruntled, disembodied things. And obnoxious noises.” He pauses for a drink and a breath; there are so many things he could tell Harry, too many things, all of them tripping over each other in their bid to get out first. How he colored on a section of their kitchen wall and they never scrubbed it off, or how he’d put Sirius to sleep without fail every time Sirius tried to get him to take a nap. How, when he was born, the first time Remus ever held him with his tiny baby-feet kicking out and his fists closing around his fingers, he had to sit down because he was so afraid his arms weren’t strong enough to keep him there and Harry would squirm right out, but here he is now, fifteen years old and trying to wiggle back into them.

“I’m sorry,” says Remus. “It’s just been a long time since I’ve talked about this. Any of it.”

Harry nods, watching his own face somewhere at the bottom of his teacup, hair like spilled ink, every inch as uncombed as James’ ever was. “Sirius said—when everything’s better, I mean, and it’s over—I can come live with him. That means you, too, right?”

“If you want, yes,” says Remus, very softly so as not to tread on the tender sprouts they’ve sown between them. “I’d learn to bake pie for you,” Remus blurts, emboldened by the warmth of the room and the sound of his own voice with Harry’s. He doesn’t have to forget this anymore. “I would.”

“Pie?”

“It’s a long story.” He looks down into his cup; he can’t see the grey in his hair or the small scar just above his eyebrow. “But I’d do it. Every night of the week.”

“Why?”

As long as he’s jumping in at the deep end, Remus thinks, he might as well touch the bottom before he comes back up for air. He owes Harry that much. He owes himself that much.

“Because I’ve loved you since before you were ever born,” he says. The clock ticks away the silence, his smile twisting off to the side, trying to give away too much at once. “Oh, don’t look so surprised. You were a warm cotton bundle of messy hair and funny noises. I’d—I used to talk to you like you were an adult, you know, it drove James insane because he thought you were actually talking when he wasn’t in the room. You had my favorite laugh. Of course I loved you.”

Harry’s voice, when he finds it again, is a ghost, a slip of smoke stretching hopefully through the space between them. “Do you still—I mean, would you—?”

If there is one thing Remus has learned at all over the span of several months spent piecing his heart back together from the disassembled fragments sitting shattered and disconnected in his chest, it’s how to trust the strength of his own arms, how to sink into the solidity of his own skin, and he does exactly that when he puts them around Harry for the first time in fourteen years. Remus hears nothing but the sound of their breathing, feels nothing but their arms, entwined.

Waltzing around Sirius in their bathroom before bed is different here than it was in Kent, in part because the bathroom they share at Number Twelve is so much bigger, a gaudy thing plucked straight from an Edward Gorey sketch with its black-on-grey-on-white, the immaculate mahogany cabinets scrubbed to a glassy brown; Remus thinks another hippogriff could take up residence in the linen closet and they’d probably never notice. There’s so much empty space at the sink that he doesn’t have to crash into Sirius every time he reaches for the floss or a dry washcloth, so they compensate by standing too close and leaning over each other anyway, knocking their elbows together, bumping hips, stepping on toes with deliberate, practiced gracelessness.

This time last year, Remus probably would have spilled his own blood just for the sweet, hard-smooth solidity of Sirius’ knee brushing his on the sofa, and here they are now, on a constant collision course at the bathroom sink, the kitchen table, on the stairs. When he comes in with autumn clinging to his hair, Sirius breathes it in, kisses the rain off his forehead and the backs of his hands, starved for the scraps of the waking world Remus brings back to him in the buzzing silence of this house when it’s only the two of them, alone.

Tonight, Sirius pushes his hair out of his eyes and stares down at the sink while he brushes his teeth, eager, as Remus sometimes still is, to avoid the ghost in the mirror. It isn’t until he gives Sirius a good, firm elbow in the solar plexus that he looks up, ready for swift retaliation, only to find Remus facing forward, staring back at him in their polished silver reflections over the sink. And there they are, all their scars and all their tight angles. There’s the hollow dip of Sirius’ collarbone, the darkness seeping into Remus’ skin beneath his eyes, the frayed hem of his shirt, the thick tangle in Sirius’ hair. There’s Remus leaning over to leave a quick kiss at his temple, warmly, slowly; there’s Sirius, watching, his eyes the same sea-slate they’ve always been, Remus’ smile the same quiet thing it’s always been, all their years and all their history and all their blood reverberating in the shadows of their faces, the good and the bad, and courage to look at both.

There they are, all of them.

“You know, I’m all right,” Sirius says from the edge of the bed just minutes later, his ankles sticking out from under his pyjamas while Remus pulls the curtain closed at the far end of the room. “I am.”

“Is that all you’ve got to say for yourself? I’ve got a few adjectives you can borrow, if you’d like.”

“Oh, a pox on you and your grammatical superiority, Lupin, you’re the one who asked,” he grumbles, and Remus, realization washing down to his toes, lets Sirius take his hands and tug him down beside him on the bed. “I said, I’m all right.”

“You’re all right,” Remus repeats, taking his hand between his own and playing with his fingers the way he had months ago, on the sofa in Kent. His knuckles are smoother, his fingers stronger. Remus finds a vein and traces it all the way to his wrist.

“Yeah. I think I’m a good sort.”

“I know my opinion is biased here and probably inadmissible,” says Remus, “but I happen to know you’re a lot more than all right. You know. Just in case you wanted a second opinion.”

Sirius laughs, turns his hand over in Remus’, palm to palm. “I’d like to hope so, I’d hate to lose my only real source of exercise in this place.”

“Sirius—”

“Please, Moony. I’m like a hamster and you’re the wheel. ”

“You’re vile,” he says, less with conviction and more with a deep gladness at the light in his tone, sudden as a sea change. “You know this isn’t forever, you daft arse. You know I won’t let it be.”

“It’s easier for me to remember that when you’re here,” says Sirius, a quiet murmur of warmth in the coolness of their room. “It’s—Christ, Remus, you know how I hate this. It’s like having all the worst parts of my life thrown back at me every bloody day, and at least—at least in Azkaban, I could convince myself I belonged there most of the time. Here, I know I don’t. First man to escape and he’s locked up again within two years, I hope someone’s having a good laugh at that Birius Slack right now because it is a little funny when you think about it.”

“No,” Remus whispers, “it’s not.”

This is what terrifies him, this hair-trigger plunge from high to low, these knife-edge things that bother him more than Sirius’ silences ever did. It reminds him of Sirius during their first year, which is ridiculous because you can’t compare a thirty-five-year-old man to the boy he was at eleven, but there it is: the old shame, the reckless disregard for himself and the people around him, that familiar, unutterable sadness, the fear folded in on itself somewhere deep inside him. And then it makes him angry in turn at these people who have done nothing but hurt Sirius, angry at Dumbledore, Snape, the portrait he wants to rip apart with his bare hands, angry at twelve years wasted, angry that he has spent so long, so long loving Sirius and from all that—from all the time they’ve carved out of themselves—from all that, they’ve only scraped three or four good years together out of it.

But it does no good to think of what’s fair, especially not now. What he thinks of instead is the feel of Sirius’ fingers pushing through his, the heavy heat of his skin and bones. What he does is lean in close.

“It’s weird, innit,” Sirius says into his shoulder. When he doesn’t elaborate, Remus raises an eyebrow and sticks his nose in his cheek. “It’s just, you know. I always figured you got to a point in your life where there’s some, I don’t know, epiphany or trumpets playing and flashing lights and red velvet cake, and you’ve finally figured it all out. You did it, you shining star, you get to stop squirming around and live your life the way you want. But it doesn’t actually work that way. You just keep fucking up until you get something right, and then you fuck up again.”

“You should start writing poetry, Pads. I can help you come up with a pen name.”

“Shut up, you know what I mean.”

“I do,” says Remus, “but sometimes, it’s not your fault, either. And none of this is your fault. Except the scorched carpet in the study, that’s entirely your fault.”

“I know. No, I do know. It’s just that—it feels weird, to stop blaming myself for some things. And get on with having a life, I guess.”

“I know,” says Remus, and wouldn’t he. “I know, Sirius.”

“What I’m saying—what I’m saying is, it feels like the world left me behind,” says Sirius, leaning over to blow out the last candle and tug the quilt over them. “And it did, didn’t it? I feel like I’m just now starting to catch up. With myself, as much as anything.” A breath, a rustle of sheets, and his knees are in the curve of Remus’ knees, his nose pressed into the bump of vertebra at the back of his neck and his arm around Remus’ waist, and Remus is reaching for his hand before it even settles on the bed. “And I’ve only just realized I’m Sirius Black, and I’m all right. I’m a good sort. I’ve still got cheekbones you could open a can with. I’ve got the best godson on the fucking planet. I like hippogriffs. I like ugly pies. I occupy space and I’m not empty inside. I wear fuzzy green socks around the house and I’m going to build you the biggest cottage as soon as I’m out of here and don’t argue with me, it’ll just make me sound stupider than I already do.”

Remus looks over his shoulder and stares at him for a long time, which is terribly uncomfortable for a man in his position, but his throat is stretched to speechlessness and his mouth has stitched itself shut, so it takes a bit of looking at Sirius—alive and beautiful and here, right here with him, the way they were always supposed to be—before he remembers how words work and how to use them. When he does, he turns over to sift his fingers through Sirius’ hair and pull him closer, saying, brokenly, “Then I suppose that means you’re Sirius Black, and I love you.”

“Suppose it does,” says Sirius, smiling wicked-sharp when Remus rolls on top of him, pushed up on his elbows, Sirius’ face cradled in one palm.

“I’m not going to let you forget that,” Remus tells him. He can feel the rasp of stubble on his chin when he kisses him, ticklish and minty. It’s the best thing he’s ever had, in all his life. “Any of it, ever.”

“Promise me?” asks Sirius, his mouth on Remus’, his hands hard and certain where he grips his shoulders. His eyes are as brilliant as they’ve ever been.

Remus says, “Always.”

When Remus was young, long before time and pain wove him the armor he would wear for the rest of his life, he woke one morning with blood caked between the toes of his left foot and a searing-white pain shuddering across his shoulders in the shape of a loose floorboard, and he asked his father why they couldn’t have a bigger cellar, why they couldn’t build a big red barn to lock him in at moonrise like the one the farmers had all the way down the hill and across the tiny brook he used to play in. His father, strange and silent, looked down at the top of his six-year-old head and told him not to invest in things he couldn’t afford to lose; later, his mother, over a cup of cocoa and his ribs aching with the agony of realignment, told him not to listen to that rubbish at all.

“When you’ve got something good, you hold on,” she said, the green river-lilt of her voice curling in his ears. She pressed him close, spoke with her lips to his forehead so he could feel every word. “You don’t let it sit and turn to vinegar. You take it and you give it everything you’ve got, every bit, even if it hurts you.”

He didn’t understand what either of them meant until much later, until he was eleven years old and laughing in the Gryffindor dormitory with the friends he never meant to make; until he was twelve, his heart in his mouth, ready to fly from the room but for Sirius’ arms catching him around the waist, and then James’, and then Peter’s; fifteen, burying his nose in shaggy black dog fur, his pocket full of rat and antlers poking his shoulder; seventeen, Sirius’ lips murmuring vows against his open palm; twenty, waking up with his face buried in Sirius’ shoulder on an autumn-crisp morning, rolling I love you around in his mouth like a pomegranate seed until it sprouted on his tongue and bloomed there, Sirius’ young face sudden and alive, overflowing, always like the first time.

He understood when he wrapped himself up on his own bed for days, alone, as part of him was blown to bits in Godric’s Hollow and another was buried in the frigid-blue North Sea. He understood when the waves would not wash away the sound of Sirius’ voice or the feeling of his body with Remus’ body; he understood when he couldn’t put their broken pieces back together all at once, understood why the puzzle didn’t look the same once they fit it all into place.

He understands it now, wound around Sirius in all the dark spaces of this house, in this dark time.

If you had asked Remus fifteen years ago what love is, he would have answered, in a voice less certain than the one he’s found at thirty-five, that it’s about transience. That it’s about changing, melting, flowing seamlessly from one thing to the next like wine into water. Elusive as myth, intangible.

If you asked him now, drinking tea in the library and listening to Sirius critique the filthiest book he can find in the house with one arm around Remus to keep him close, he would say it’s more about shapeshifting. He’d say it’s never about the change so much as the form it takes, not about where you’ve been, but where you’re going. It is bodies in perpetual motion, the rise and the fall alike, the solid skin and bone of yourself and the person there beside you, lungs strong enough to breathe for both of you when you need to and a heart that keeps beating because that is all it knows how to do with that fire burning in your gut.

“Hey,” says Sirius, running his palm down Remus’ forearm to the back of his hand, calloused coarse with years of Gryffindor Quidditch and two years of wild wandering, “are you even listening, or have you got all the worst ones memorized? I wouldn’t have thought your Victorian sensibilities could take it. It’s quite the impairment, and what’s the point if I can’t turn your ears purple, or at least do that thing with your fingers.”

“I don’t do a thing with my fingers.”

“Oh, but you do, every time there’s something that can be interpreted as even vaguely phallic—see?” he points at Remus’ hands, where he’s worrying his jumper between his fingers, unconsciously. “It’s Pavlovian, Remus, I should try it at the next meeting and see if anyone notices your twitching.”

“Now you’re just doing it on purpose.”

“You weren’t even listening,” Sirius laughs, just for him—only for him.

“I’m listening,” he says. He sips his tea, slips a smile onto his lips. “You know what I love about you?”

Sirius gestures vaguely in the direction of his crotch; Remus shoves him hard and laughs. “Well, I mean—frankly, yes, fine, but that’s not the point.”

“Must be my skill with a spatula, then. Don’t worry, cupcake, you’ll work your way up from Weetabix one of these days. We can’t all be me.”

“You burnt my eggs two days in a row, stop looking so smug, it’s bad for your complexion,” says Remus, leaning into him just a little more until his head rests in the crook of his shoulder, safe and heavy, like ballast. He smells earthy-soft like he always has, his shirt heavy with that clean blue laundry smell, skin-warm and new. “I was going to say you’re just—you’re so bright. It’s like you’re this brilliant jangle of energy and it’s—even here, I mean, you fill up the corners of a room and I don’t know how but, it’s just, I’ve always loved it, and God, I sound like I’ve got ants in my bits right now.”

“You always sound like you’ve got ants in your bits,” says Sirius. His fingers flex gently over Remus’, dry and steady, strong. Remus watches them. “It’s part of what I love about you.”

“Good thing we’re a matched set, then.”

“Good thing we are.”

Sirius looks at him, and Remus looks back, neither of them twenty anymore, neither of them thirty anymore, all their bones and sharp edges shoved together against creeping middle age and war, and Remus is in love. He has never been more in love: with Sirius, with the impossible shapes they make curled up on the sofa, with the firm expanse of his own skin, with the far shore of a future he has begun to believe they can reach. He is in love.

If you asked Remus what love is, if you asked him right now, thirty-five years old and lulled to drowsiness by the flush of heat from the fire, he would say it is the full, dry-leaf murmur of Sirius’ voice, saying, “Right, so what next, then?”

He would say it is the taste of the answer bursting on his tongue, “Whatever we want, I suppose,” rich as wine, a loud surge of red and honeyed gold.

He would say it is the rhythm of his own heart beating in his chest, I-am, I-am, I-am; he would say it is Sirius’, whispering louder now in his blood, certain as stone even in the crypt of this house. You-are, you-are, you-are.

He would say it is the fluidity of years. It is thin grey hairs and unquiet sleep just as much as it is a pale strip of seventeen-year-old skin shown to the sun on August afternoons and the quick quirk of a reckless grin. It is the gentle hum of memory settling into bones and the chill of autumn light in the evening air today, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. It is ageless, fathomless, older and stronger than the tongues that gave it the tether of a name; it keeps its own time, as Remus keeps his.

And while he isn’t sure he could ever put it to the grace of words in a way that makes sense to anyone but himself, Remus is confident that this is only further proof that love is a tangible thing blooming out from somewhere deep inside you, in that space you set aside for yourself and someone else. If he had to approximate, he would say it’s his feet and Sirius’ feet, concrete and upright, together.

“You’re looking a little daft, you know that?” Sirius tells him. He’s smiling high, chaotic-crooked, quiet. “You’ve got that shaky thing going on with your face again. Your mouth’s gone all wobbly.”

“It’s probably contagious. I probably caught it from you, too. You’ve ruined me.”

“I don’t think lunacy is contagious. Or, at any rate, you’ve already got it, mate,” says Sirius, but he rests the back of one hand against Remus’ forehead anyway, cool and sweet. “Fortunately for you, I find it extremely attractive, whatever sad terminal thing it is. Fortunately for both of us, you’re insatiable.”

“The bathroom this morning was nice,” he agrees, “you know.”

Sirius brushes his thumb across his lip, his chin, his jaw, all the way to the heart in his throat. “I know,” he says, and Remus is certain that he does know.

That love is all the things you have lost and all the things you have found, as solid and unmistakable as Remus’ hand in Sirius’ hand when they stand up, as absolute as their feet on the ground, as strong as the thread they’ve strung between them where they hang all their history, and all their hope.