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Swatting his paw at a gnome that was currently engaged in a game of 'pull the tail on the doggie' and gibbering in delight at its newfound toy, Padfoot quickly ducked his head behind the scrubby rhododendron bushes when he heard the unmistakable crack of Apparition. He eased himself down and burrowed with his paws, trying to blend in with the shadows formed by hedgerow and the wintry, pale sunlight glinting dully on the snow. He was tired, wet, hungry and still quite a bit unsettled, and his blood thrummed with a mixture of anxiety and enthusiasm.

It had been two full days since his return from… nothingness, really. Initially, he hadn't realized that any significant amount of time had even passed. His memory seemed to be undamaged, yet there was a surreal sort of fuzziness around its edges. Without warning, he would experience a peculiar sense of paranoia – as if someone or something was hovering just behind his shoulder, just out of sight and intangibly out of reach – but the ground felt solid, if cold, beneath his paws and belly, and the snowflakes tickled his nose.

Curious, he peered through the branches, careful not to rustle them too loudly with his nose, and watched the two figures tramp through the yard. He started, abruptly recognizing the notorious mane of hair on the taller, broader man, and froze as a twig snapped, but neither of the men turned at the noise. He relaxed slightly, his eyes narrowing, a low growl curling in his throat, wondering what business the Head Auror had at the Burrow on Christmas. He belatedly realized who Scrimgeour's companion was when the man (boy, he corrected himself) paused and turned to glance round the garden before taking a deep breath and opening the back door. Molly appeared on the threshold, looking rather stunned he thought, even from this distance.

"Oh, Percy," she exclaimed, her voice carrying across the yard, and threw herself into her son's stiff arms.

They were too far away for him to hear any more of their conversation, but soon enough the pair of visitors were being ushered inside, the door closing behind them.

He felt an odd prickle in his spine, the same sense of dread that had stolen over him when he'd gone first to Grimmauld Place and discovered it empty. Even Kreacher had been gone, though there had been some signs of recent habitation – the lack of grimy layers of dust being the most obvious. The protection charms on the old house had felt… changed, unfamiliar, but had granted him entrance nonetheless. Remus' old room had been emptied, not even a stray hair left on the bare mattress.

Feeling both detached and very disoriented (after all, it had been summer the last he'd known, and it had been quite a shock when he'd managed to sneak out of the Ministry building undetected only to be hit with a blast of icy, arctic wind), he'd fled to Remus' old cottage and found it all but abandoned, dark and dusty and looking even more forlorn than Grimmauld Place, if that was possible. Visions of Remus dead, unblinking, empty eyes staring up from a pain-ravaged face loomed large, and he'd shaken his head, moaning. No! Not Remus…

In a panic – completely disregarding the very real possibility of splinching and the Ministry's ability to trace such incidents – he'd Apparated to Hogsmeade and quickly changed into Padfoot, trawling the snow-covered High Street for a stray bit of newspaper, a snatch of overheard conversation, any sign or indication of the date and year (he was well aware it was winter), or what the hell was going on in the world around him.

Finding the streets eerily deserted, he'd paused a few hundred yards from The Three Broomsticks and stole into a nearby alley when he'd seen a dark figure slinking from the pub's entrance. He had peered around the corner of the building in a most un-dog-like manner, but the figure had gone, disappeared into the shadows. It was then that he'd noticed the meagre display of Christmas decorations adorning the windows of the usually cheerful and bustling pub. There was still the familiar flickering light from the fireplace and torches glowing in the windows, but there was an uncomfortable stillness and a bleak sense of gloom that blanketed the entire village even more thoroughly than the snow.

The streets, he'd realized, had been unaccountably emptied of the usual throng of Yuletide shoppers. The scarce few pedestrians he'd seen were solitary, huddled in their cloaks from more than just the chill wind, heads down and wary, unwilling to make eye contact with or acknowledge the presence of others.

He'd retreated into the alley and found a dented garbage bin half filled with snow, knocked it over and pawed through the contents. Spying a sodden and torn copy of the Prophet, he'd grabbed it in his teeth and wrestled it away from the rest of the trash. The ink was barely legible, but after licking away the snow in the corner, he'd been able to make out that the date was indeed late December, and the year was… 1996.

He had closed his eyes to get his bearings, straining to remember the simplest of maths. December, 1996. He'd been… gone… less than a year, then. And it was near to Christmas. He'd remembered that Harry always stayed at Hogwarts for the holidays, excepting last year of course.

Disregarding the rest of the soggy headlines, he had run, uncaring that he might be recognized, bounding up the High Street towards Hogwarts. The gates had been locked tight, and he'd felt a tingle of magic when he'd tried to push them open with his paws. Frustrated, he'd flung his body against the gates to no avail, and after repeating the futile gesture a number of times, he'd dropped to his haunches and whimpered.

He knew he'd never be able to sneak into any of the buildings in town to access the secret passages into the school, not as a dog, not in broad daylight without any crowds to distract the shopkeepers, and certainly not in human form, wanted criminal that he was. He had been considering the alternate routes of trekking through the forest or even swimming across the lake - he'd swum much further once, after all, and in much worse shape than he was in now – when he'd caught the sound of voices coming from inside the gates. He'd dashed around the nearby hedgerows, hidden himself as best he could and listened.

"Are you quite sure, Severus?" said the familiar voice of Filius Flitwick. "I can't imagine that even the Death Eaters would be brazen enough to try to storm the gates, despite Dumbledore being away at the moment."

"Something triggered the protection spells, rather violently at that."

His fur had rippled along his spine, and he'd suppressed the growl he felt building in the pit of his belly. There had been a brief clanking of metal, and a grunt.

"Still locked, and there's been no breach," Snape said.

"Look," Flitwick said. "Those look like paw prints on the other side. Can you see them? There. Obviously it was an animal of sorts, not a person at all. It's surely gone by now."

"Rather large beast," Snape said.

"But none we need to worry about. Full moon was several days ago."

"Yes. Thankfully," Snape said disdainfully, making Padfoot's fur bristle.

"We should go," Flitwick said. "Nothing more for us to do here. And Dumbledore will likely be returning this evening."

"Merlin forbid he miss Christmas," Snape muttered. "At least Potter and his brood aren't here this year–"

"Now, now, Severus. Have a care. It is Christmas Eve after all."

"Joy," Snape drawled, his voice fading as the two men returned to the castle.

He'd lain there behind the hedge in the snow for a while, relieved that Harry was obviously safe, but full of anxiety as he had no idea where Harry was. Or Remus. (No, damn it, he's not dead!) Or anyone he trusted enough to reveal himself to. Surely he hadn't gone home to the Dursleys, protection spell or no. How on earth was Sirius going to find him now?

Wary about changing back to human form and Apparating again so soon, he'd hitched a ride on a southbound train, curling up against packing crates on the floor of a cargo car. It hadn't been until late evening, after a well-needed nap, that he'd realized where he needed to go and, if he'd had hands at the time, he would have smacked himself for his utter stupidity.

When he'd finally arrived in Ottery St. Catchpole just over an hour earlier, he'd had an unsettling attack of nerves. As much as he'd wanted nothing more than to bound joyously up to the door, barking and throwing himself into the happily waiting arms of his godson, he'd felt inexplicably anxious. He'd been gone, likely presumed dead, for months. The war was obviously still being fought, and by all indications, it had escalated since his… disappearance. And if Remus was indeed dead as he feared in his heart, he didn't think he could bear to hear the words spoken out loud.

So he'd cautiously approached the Weasleys' home, keeping out of sight from the windows, careful not to alert anyone to his presence just yet. He'd wanted to watch, to wait, unsure what kind of welcome he'd receive. And with the arrival of Scrimgeour, his hesitation had proved to be prudent.

Just then, the back door opened, a familiar silhouette appearing on the threshold.

His heart stopped beating for an instant and he blinked his eyes repeatedly, his vision clouding over and receding, tunnel-fashion. His head knew it was Harry, but for a fleeting moment his heart had cried out another name.

Harry. He'd found him. His tail wagged with doggy glee, and the wayward gnome, apparently disturbed by the frenzied movement of his toy, bit down sharply in response.

He barely succeeded in smothering a yelp and flicked his tail hard, wriggling his hindquarters sharply and sending the gnome flying over the bush. Looking back toward Harry, he saw that Scrimgeour was now accompanying the boy, and worse, they were walking in his direction.

He pulled his nose back from the open space between the branches and ducked as low as he could, huddling and trying to make himself both smaller and invisible by sheer force of will. The bushes were tall and thick enough to cloak him from their view, and there was a fence between lawn and garden, but he lay still, afraid to breathe too loudly or make any movement that might draw their eye. He did prick up his ears, however – he was beyond curious to find out what the old Auror wanted with his godson.

"Charming," Scrimgeour said. "Charming."

The man's voice fairly trickled with honey, wheedling and coaxing, but Harry refused to respond. If a dog could flush… James would be that proud, he thought to himself.

But what was this about rumours and a 'Chosen One'? Dumbledore must have finally told him about the prophecy! It was about time. He'd had several arguments with the headmaster over that issue – whether or not to tell Harry. Dumbledore had been fairly taken aback upon learning that Sirius had known, but he'd scoffed at the headmaster. Of course James had told him. There had never been any secrets between him and James after all, but unfortunately for all of them, they'd kept the most vital secret from Dumbledore himself.

He blinked his eyes in an attempt to clear his mind and focus on the conversation and noticed that the dratted gnome, who had managed to find its way back to his hiding spot, was once again eyeing his tail. Stupid creature. He gingerly batted at it with his paw to no effect, and frustrated, gave it a rather hard thwack, sending it straight into the bush. He cringed at the noise, but to his relief, the gnome crawled to the other side of the bush and disappeared from his view.

"Sorry, but that's between us," Harry said. Gnome forgotten, Sirius cheered silently at his godson's tone.

"…does it really matter whether you are 'the Chosen One' or not?"

"I don't really know what you mean, Minister," Harry said.

Minister? Sirius thought. Scrimgeour was Minister now? He wondered what had happened to the incompetent Fudge and decided that he didn't particularly care, though with Scrimgeour as Minister, his life on the run was going to be decidedly more difficult.

As he continued to listen to the conversation between the two, he had to concentrate on quelling his desire to leap out of the bushes and drown his godson in drool. Scrimgeour was desperately fishing for information, and Harry still wasn't biting.

"No, I don't think that'll work," Harry said. "You see, I don't like some of the things the Ministry's doing."

Padfoot's tail was wagging furiously, and his back leg was twitching uncontrollably. He was afraid to look, but his glee was so pronounced that he thought he might just have a rather large cockstand as well.

"What is Dumbledore up to?" Scrimgeour asked. "Where does he go when he is absent from Hogwarts?"

"No idea," Harry said.

"And you wouldn't tell me if you knew, would you?"

"No, I wouldn't."

"Well, then, I shall see whether I can't find out by other means."

"You can try," Harry said indifferently. "But you seem cleverer than Fudge, so I'd have thought you'd have learned from his mistakes. He tried interfering at Hogwarts. You might have noticed he's not Minister anymore, but Dumbledore's still headmaster. I'd leave Dumbledore alone if I were you."

Oh, Prongs! I hope that wherever the hell you are, you can hear this. Bloody marvellous son you've got!

He watched, his heart swelling with pride, as Harry walked casually back across the yard to the house.

"Bugger it," Scrimgeour muttered under his breath. "Bloody arrogant little shit. Who the hell does he think–"

Padfoot bared his teeth, a growl rising in his throat, but was stopped from doing anything foolish when the back door burst open with a bang and Percy stormed out. He strode stiffly past Harry without acknowledging his presence and interrupted the Minister's uncharitable musings.

He watched Percy rip his glasses from his face, cursing under his breath as he tried to clean some gooey mess from the lenses, only succeeding in further soiling his hands and cloak. He shook his hand violently and some of the mess landed on the snow with a soft plop.

"Yes, well, I think that's enough for one day, don't you, lad?" Scrimgeour said, clearing his throat and trying to sound cheerful. "Right. I must be off. Back to the Ministry, you know. A Minister's work doesn't stop just because of the holiday, after all."

"Yes, sir," Percy muttered, pushing his glasses back on his face and spreading more of the goop into his hair in the process.

A moment later, the two Disapparated, and Padfoot heaved a heavy sigh of relief.

So, Dumbledore was giving the still-incompetent Ministry fits yet again, and apparently the Ministry was making every effort to ingratiate itself to Harry and failing miserably. Despite the pride he felt towards Harry, and even towards Dumbledore himself, he balked at the irony of the situation. The current Ministry was no better than the one of fifteen years earlier and was very obviously still in the habit of mucking things up. Idiots.

He shook out his coat, bits of snow and ice flying. His fur was standing out in places, but he didn't care. (It was now or never.) Heartened, he hastened out from behind the row of bushes. He spotted his erstwhile gnome friend who ignored him, happily munching on a worm, and nosed though a gap in the fence, eyes trained on the kitchen window as he slowly crossed the yard in a half-walk, half-trot.

He paused briefly to sniff at the gooey mass Percy had left behind and sneezed explosively. Turnips. Ugh! He hoped his own appearance would be better received. If he was lucky, he might rate a ham or turkey, or perhaps even Christmas pudding if he was truly fortunate.

As he approached the back door, he stopped, listening to what sounded like a right nasty row going on inside.

"Go to your room!" Molly screeched.

"But mum, we're eighteen."

"Nearly nineteen!"

"You can't send us to our rooms anymore."

"Arthur!" Molly cried.

"They're right, dear. They are adults," Arthur said. "And they don't technically live here anymore, only staying for the holiday and all."

"Well, fine! Just fine!" Molly yelled.

"Now, Molly–"

The sound of stomping footsteps grew closer. Suddenly the door flew open, and Molly rushed outside, tears streaming from her eyes. She fell to her knees in the snow, covered her face with her hands, and sobbed.

"Shouldn't you go after her?" a voice asked from inside.

"Don't worry, I will," Arthur said. "She can get a bit emotional you know, especially when it comes to… I'll just give her a minute to catch her breath a bit."

Padfoot quietly padded up to her, snuffling and butting her softly with his nose.

"Oh! My poor Percy! What am I going to do?" she wailed and threw her arms around his neck, sobbing into his fur.

Padfoot whuffled and turned his head in an attempt to lick her cheek, and Molly stiffened. Rising gingerly to her feet, she slowly stepped back, a look of abject terror on her tearstained face. He stared at her, quirking his head to the side in question. Her mouth worked wordlessly for a moment before she let out an ear-piercing scream.


It was pandemonium. Charging footsteps pounded across the floor. There were shrieks and shouts – Molly! Death Eaters! We're being attacked! Stupefy! Harry, Ron, get down! There he is! Stupefy! Put those away - you're still underage! Petrificus Totalus! – and he yelped, dodged and ducked as spells flashed and whizzed by. He caught a whiff of singed fur and rolled over in the snow, yelping again.

"Stop! Look! Eet is only a dog!"

Suddenly everyone was silent, standing there motionless in the yard, others huddled in the doorway, peering out over shoulders and between bodies, staring with mouths agape.

"Padfoot?" Harry croaked.

He nodded – or tried to as he was currently sprawled inelegantly on his back, paws in the air – and rolled over onto all fours, shifting smoothly back into human form. Getting somewhat awkwardly to his feet, he brushed the snow from his thighs and looked up just in time to see Molly faint dead away onto the snow.

Maybe not the Christmas pudding then.

Arthur paused a moment, staring between Sirius and his wife, before rushing to Molly's side, lifting her in his arms and trying to revive her. Harry raced past the couple and flung himself onto Sirius, nearly bowling him over, and hugging him fiercely.

"Er," Sirius said, a little choked, looking down at the mass of gangly limbs and wild hair that was presently squeezing out the contents of his lungs. "Happy Christmas?" he wheezed.

Harry released him and jumped back, his face flushing with embarrassment. "Sorry. I got a little, er," he mumbled, looking at his feet.

Sirius touched his shoulder, squeezing lightly, and Harry glanced up, a wide smile spreading across his face. "It's really you, isn't it? Sirius?"

"Yeah, Harry, it's really me," he affirmed, a matching grin on his own face. "I'm back."

By this time, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Fred, George and Bill had all surrounded him. There was quite a stir, all of them jostling to get close enough to shake Sirius' hand or pat him on the back, and Hermione even gave him a quick peck on the cheek, blushing when he kissed her back with a loud smack to her own cheek.

There was a steady stream of questions peppered with repeated exclamations of disbelief. Bill introduced him to his fiancée, Fleur, who seemed puzzled by the situation, but appeared to be taking things in stride. It wasn't until Arthur cleared his throat loudly, a shaky Molly on his arm, that the commotion quieted to a low hum.

"It's good to see you, Sirius," Arthur said. "Why don't you come inside, then? I think we could all use a drink, and you must be freezing, dressed as you are with no cloak."

Molly simply stared at him in wordless shock, jaw slack, her eyes wide.

"Ta, Arthur, Molly," Sirius said, nodding at the stricken woman. He took a few steps forward, grasped Arthur's proffered hand to greet him, and froze in place, staring past Arthur's shoulder.

Arthur let out a squeak, and Sirius belatedly released his crushing grip. He staggered around the couple, his heart thumping loudly and his stomach somewhere round the neighbourhood of his ankles.

Remus was standing just outside the door, wand still grasped tightly in his outstretched hand, face deathly pale, with a look of such stunned surprise, or perhaps horror – as if he were seeing a particularly frightening ghost.

He thought his own face probably looked equally traumatized. Everyone in the yard had gone eerily silent, or so he thought. All he could hear was the pounding of his pulse through his ears.

"I thought you were dead," they both whispered at the same time.

Sirius continued to stare at Remus, unblinking. His mouth felt dry, and his chest ached. Notwithstanding his expression, Remus looked exhausted. His features were gaunt, and he seemed even thinner than Sirius remembered; His robes were patched and worn, and simply hung on his frame, and there was more silver in his too-long hair. At that moment Remus was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

The corner of Remus' lip twitched, and a slow lopsided smile started to bloom across his haggard face, his cheeks regaining a faint hint of pink. Sirius felt an answering smile appear on his own face and took a tentative step forward.

A raspy noise halfway between a sob and a hiccough sounded from Remus' throat, though it could have been his own – he wasn't quite sure at the moment – and he hastened forward, stumbling and nearly tripping over his own feet. The two embraced in a hug so fiercely intimate – Remus burying his face against Sirius' shoulder, Sirius' hands twining in Remus' hair – there was no mistaking either man's intent.

No words seemed necessary, which suited Sirius just fine since the gibberish spouting from his mouth was completely incoherent anyway. He nuzzled against Remus' hair, breathing in the familiar, musky scent, overwhelmed with both relief and joy.

With scant attention paid to the startled gasps (and a couple of catcalls) from the crowd behind him, he slowly released Remus, running the fingers of his left hand along his jaw, smooth compared to his own stubble, and tilting it just enough to plant a brief but tender kiss on Remus' lips.

There was a distinctly loud thud behind them, accompanied by cries of "Mum!", "Oh, dear!", and "Mrs. Weasley!" as Molly fainted again.

*~*


Sirius had been rather startled upon emerging from the bath to find a crowd lingering outside the door. They'd blushed, mumbling apologies and nervously averting their eyes, trying to pretend they'd had a reason for loitering. He'd grinned and hoped they'd been properly entertained by his new and improved, (and rather naughty) lyrics to "God Rest Ye Merry Hippogriffs" and "Oh Come All Ye Faithful". But now, freshly showered and shaved, and dressed in jeans and jumper graciously loaned by Bill, ('B' for Black, Harry had said, grinning) Sirius was sat on a shabby but comfortable couch in the living room, flanked by Remus and Harry, tumbler of Old Ogdens in hand.

He'd been chuffed earlier when Harry had presented him with a hastily wrapped gift, and completely dumbfounded when he'd opened it to find that it was an Official Ministry Pardon, fully executed, sealed, and spelled to retard fire, liquid and other accidental (or intentional) damage. He'd read the whole thing through five times before it had actually begun to sink in.

He was free. It was a mind-boggling concept, especially since his mind was still a bit fuzzy around the edges, and if he'd been alone, he probably would have cried. As it was, he'd had to blink back tears and make a gruff show of it. He'd purposely avoided looking at Remus; wouldn't do to come off as a complete nancy.

He'd had a bite to eat, (he'd rated the turkey after all and passed on the turnips) while they attempted to bring him up to date on the events of the previous six months. After he'd finished his meal – deliberately praising Molly's cooking and thanking her for her hospitality – they'd all retired into the living room where the conversation had turned to the much anticipated explanation of his return.

"…and then I came here. Had a hell of a time getting directions, but I hitched most of the way from London in Muggle lorries. I've discovered that Muggles have a fondness for dogs, even large ones. One of them actually tried to take me home with him," he added, smiling. "Present for his sprog."

"But," Hermione said, "I still don't understand. How exactly did you come back? I mean… The Veil," she whispered, and Sirius shuddered. "Sorry," she amended, looking abashed. "But they do call it the Death Chamber, don't they? The room where… it's kept?"

Sirius shrugged. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but there really isn't any more to it. Like I said, I remember… before, and the next thing, I was sprawled across the platform alone in the chamber. I felt… peculiar, and I wondered where everyone had gone off to, why I'd been left behind. I still had my wand in my hand.

"I don't know how or why I came back, and I have no memories of the past six months at all. Only… impressions," he said, frowning into his drink.

"We'll discuss it with Dumbledore," Remus said. "Perhaps he'll be able to make some sense of it. I'm sure he'll be fascinated by your… return, at any rate."

"Well," Arthur said from his chair by the fireplace, "you're here now, and that's what matters. And we're all extremely pleased to have you back, Sirius."

"Some more than others," George murmured to Fred, winking, and was promptly elbowed by Ginny, sitting on his other side.

"What? What did I say?" George asked, affronted.

Everyone laughed as Remus blushed and ducked his head.

Molly, who had spent the better part of the evening throwing equally scathing looks between Sirius, Remus and Fleur, stood abruptly.

"Right," she said, her voice oddly high-pitched. "Pudding! You can help me, Arthur." She manoeuvred around Ron who was sprawled on the hearthrug and walked stiffly into the kitchen.

"Some less than others, too," Fred stage whispered. Ginny leaned behind George and promptly thwacked him on the head, and he had to duck against the onslaught of small pillows and other bits and bobs flying at him.

Remus cleared his throat and rose from his place on the couch, fingers brushing lightly against Sirius' thigh. "I'll, er, I'll give her a hand. No, Arthur, it's all right," he added, catching the sceptical look on Arthur's face.

After he'd gone, Sirius turned to the others. "All right, what's going on? Despite the," he cleared his throat, "surprising good grace which you've all shown regarding particular… ah, revelations," he added with a meaningful glance at the twins, "I realize that Molly and I have had our differences, but something else is going on, and I want to know what."

Arthur looked like he was coming down with a severe case of indigestion, and Bill was unsuccessfully trying to hide a smile behind his hand. Sirius glanced at Harry, who looked just as perplexed as he felt.

"Don't look at me," Harry said. "I haven't got a clue about girls."

"Me either," Ron said and shuddered. "Ugh. Just thinking about Mum as a 'girl' is totally out of order."

"Oh, honestly!" Hermione said, rolling her eyes.

"What?" Ron asked. "S'true. I'nnit Fred?"

"Absolutely."

"Indubitably," George added.

"You lot aren't helping," Sirius said, mock-stern. "Out with it, Arthur."

"Oh?" Arthur blushed. "Well, I don't know if I can rightly say…"

From the kitchen, the muffled sounds of Molly's high pitched timbre alternating with the lower, modulated tones of Remus' voice could be heard, but everyone present was studiously ignoring it in favour of the matter at hand; it didn't require nearly as much effort.

"Arthur? Bill?" Sirius prompted.

Fleur muttered under her breath in French and sighed irritably. "Men! Eet is zat Tonks."

"Tonks?" Sirius asked, and his astonishment was echoed on the faces around him. "My cousin, Nymphadora Tonks?"

"Is zat 'er real name?" Fleur asked, amused. "Yes. She is in love with your Remus."

"Tonks?" Sirius croaked. "Love? With Remus?" The blood drained from his face, and he felt light-headed.

"Yes. I said zat, no?"

"No, wait – I think Tonks is in love with Sirius!" Harry exclaimed, his expression triumphant.

"What?" Sirius yelped, his body shooting a good foot in the air. His face flushed bright pink as all of the derelict blood rushed back to his head, just as a crash of broken crockery sounded from within the kitchen.

Startled, everyone jumped and froze.

"No worries," Remus called out, his voice sounding a bit strained. "Wasn't the Pudding. Just a dish. We'll sort it out."

Sighing a community breath in relief, they all turned as one and stared at Harry.

"Well, after you die– err, disappeared," Harry said to Sirius, his cheeks flushing as he shrank back into the cushions, "she – she got a bit, well, she's been in a bit of a strop, and her hair turned all brown and plain, and I was telling Professor Lupin earlier that her Patronus had changed. It was Padfoot, I know it was. I saw it."

"She 'as let 'erself go," Fleur agreed.

Sirius slumped and covered his face with his hands, mumbling under his breath.

"But Tonks is Sirius' cousin," Ginny argued. "And he was, well, he was dead, wasn't he? Why would Tonks–"

"She wouldn't," Fleur interrupted. "I told you. Eet is Remus she loves. I 'eard her say so."

"Enough!" Sirius pleaded, lowering his hands and searching fruitlessly for his whisky. "Please. I don't… Tonks? Remus?" he asked again, gratefully accepting a topped-off glass from Bill and talking a huge gulp.

"Well, this is inspiring," George said.

"Indeed. Mum and her meddling matchmaking," Fred said, clearly amused.

"At least we can guess what she's saying to Lupin in the kitchen. And we didn't even need to use the Extendable Ears this time," George added.

"Shame, that. Takes the fun out of things," Fred said.

"Boys," Arthur cut in.

"S'all right, Dad. Don't worry, Sirius. Mum obviously wasn't very successful," Fred said, giving Sirius a lewd wink.

Molly chose that moment to appear in the doorway, followed by Remus, who had a most peculiar expression on his face. Sirius felt a small twinge as he recognized Remus' patented "Yes, Professor McGonagall, I promise it will never happen again" face, and then coughed politely into his hand to stifle a laugh, his spirits lifting.

"Pudding!" Molly shouted, glaring at Fred.

"Yes, Mum."

*~*


"It's getting late. I suppose I could just kip down here if you've got a spare blanket, give Sirius Bill's room," Remus said, stretching and rising from the couch. Almost everyone had retired for the evening; only Remus, Sirius, Arthur and Molly lingered in the living room, and Sirius was standing by the fire, looking at a picture on the mantle of Harry, Ron and Hermione, taken the previous summer. Molly, who had remained tight-lipped for most of the evening, rose and made to fetch a blanket, but Arthur stood up and gently took her arm.

"Now, now, you're both adults," Arthur said, ignoring Molly's pointed glare and squeezing her arm lightly to forestall any protest. "Not very comfortable for sleeping on anyway. Get some rest, the both of you. We'll see you in the morning." He patted her hand and guided her across the room towards the stairs. Once Molly was halfway up, he leaned his head over the banister and mouthed "silencing charms!" to the two men before disappearing in her wake.

Sirius exchanged a look with Remus, and the two dissolved in a most juvenile and indecent display of mirth, snorting and choking in an effort to stifle the noise, and collapsed onto the hearthrug.

"Oh, Arthur," Remus gasped. "He's priceless."

"Good man," Sirius agreed, chuckling. "Sympathetic to a bloke's needs, too."

"So," Sirius said, the source of the rapid thrumming of the blood in his veins suddenly shifting. He felt a flush of heat in his face and a stirring rather lower down as he watched Remus. He was curled up on his side with his head pillowed on his arm, his eyes closed, the lines on his face earned from years of undeserved hardship and grief were relaxed, a sweet smile on his lips. His shoulders were still shaking slightly with mirth, and the firelight added colour and depth to his usual pallor. He looked almost young again, the same face Sirius had fallen in love with so many years ago for no particular reason except for the fact that it belonged to Remus.

"So," Remus agreed, opening his eyes and gazing up at him with a contemplative expression. "We should probably talk about a few things."

"Yeah, I… God. To look at you…," Sirius said, eyes fixed on Remus' face.

Remus smiled and reached out his hand, gently tugging Sirius down to lie next to him on the floor. "No. To look at you," Remus murmured. "There are so many things I need to say. So many questions I want to ask you. I don't quite know where to begin."

Sirius raised unsteady fingers and brushed them over Remus' face, reverent in his touch to brow, cheek, jaw, chin, grazing over his lips and back across his cheek, smoothing his hair, tracing over his ear, his neck. Conversation was not particularly occupying his thoughts at the moment.

"You're distracting me," Remus mused. "How am I supposed to think when you do that?"

He leaned forward and kissed the tip of Remus' nose.

"We're going to have to work on your aim. It's a bit off."

He merely smiled and bent to kiss Remus' chin.

"Decidedly off," Remus murmured. "Pads–"

"Shhh," he chided, pressing a finger to Remus' lips. "Questions can wait for daylight. I have other plans for tonight."

He leaned forward again, and this time his aim was dead on.

Kissing Remus was something that was so familiar, so grounded, so… instinctive, he could do it in his sleep, and likely had on occasion. Once upon a time he'd mapped every nook, memorized every texture, and categorized every taste, every nuance. And then he'd done it again; relearned the old half-remembered places, marvelled and despaired at the new ones he couldn't place, until they had merged and simply become 'Remus' once again, familiar, cherished and intimately real.

And real was something he desperately needed at this moment. He'd put up a good façade in front of the others, but the niggling feeling, the otherworldly sense of something – impressions he had called them – hadn't fully left him, and he needed to feel – to be – connected. Lying there curled up next to Remus, lips and tongue once again searching, remembering, learning, he felt a surging hunger, and he deepened the kiss further, greedy, taking pleasure and solace in the way Remus' body was responding to his, had always responded to his touch.

"Shouldn't we take this upstairs?" Remus gasped, unconsciously tilting his head back as Sirius trailed kisses over his jaw, tongue tracing intricate patterns up and down his neck.

"Don't want to move," Sirius whispered against his skin.

"Molly's in enough of a strop. What if someone comes downstairs?"

Sirius paused and removed his wand from his back pocket. He concentrated, and blue sparks shot from the tip, spiralling in a tight helix which flew towards the stairway. The helix twisted in on itself, unfurled into an elaborate matrix which extended over the landing, and vanished. Satisfied, he tossed the wand aside and bent his head to continue where he'd left off.

"Was that a… Sirius?" Remus pushed him away and sat up on his elbow, staring at him in astonishment. "I haven't seen that spell in… my God! Almost twenty years!" He glanced down at the discarded wand. "And you've been… gone… for a bit. Are you sure you still remember how to work that thing?"

"Doubt?" he chided, grinning wryly. "I should be insulted, you mocking my capacity. It's been a while for a number of things, but I appear to be faring rather well, don't you agree?" he asked, pressing Remus' hand against the bulge in his jeans.

Remus raised an eyebrow. "Hmm. I imagine you remember how to work that thing, at any rate."

"Smarmy git. Remarks like that will not earn you any favours," he scoffed.

Remus squeezed.

"Mmm, but that will," Sirius amended, grinning. "Now," he added, gently lowering Remus back to the floor, "where was I? Oh, yes. Right here, I believe." He bent his head and trailed his tongue along the length of Remus' neck, sucking gently on the pulse point and eliciting a shudder for his efforts.

"What– what about the… Oh, God, do that again! …the– the twins," Remus gasped.

"Let them try," he said, still kissing Remus' neck while his hands were busy unfastening Remus' robes. "It'll be good for them. Educational."

"Somehow – ohhhhh…" Any semblance of rational conversation trailed away as Sirius pushed Remus' robes aside, and after a few teasing licks, fastened his lips over a bared nipple.

The old house creaked, the pipes rattled, the ghoul in the far-away attic groaned and clanked, and the fire crackled as flames licked the dry wood and small drizzles of sap burst in a crescendo of sparks, but these sounds only served as a percussive accompaniment to the soft gasps and moans shared between them. Despite the urgency he felt and knew Remus echoed, clothes were shed slowly, prefaced and supplemented by exploring touches from calloused fingers and slightly rough palms, questing teeth and warm tongues nipping and tasting, intensity alternating between a gentle lick to a collarbone just here, to a more fevered sucking to the pale skin of an inner thigh just there.

The floor was hard beneath the braided rug, but neither of them complained when Sirius gently rolled Remus onto his back and crawled halfway up his body. Sucking his fingers into his mouth, Sirius looked up to meet Remus' eyes and his breath caught. The reflection of joy mingled with desire and yearning was intoxicating.

There was the barest hint of a nod and a murmured, "oh, yes, please", and he spread Remus' bent legs further apart, and slowly slid a slick finger inside, his eyes still watching Remus' face.

Remus closed his eyes and tilted his head back, rocking and circling his hips in time with Sirius' finger, now two, as he pushed in another, fingering him gently but vigorously. Sirius continued his ministrations, stretching and readying, as he bent low, licking a thin trail up Remus' cock, and Remus cried out softly when he sucked the tip into his mouth while pushing another finger inside.

Part of him wanted to stay like this, feeling Remus so very hot and warm and soft against his fingers, smooth and firm with just a hint of bitter saltiness in his mouth, but he knew his own mind, and his cock was even less patient. With a slight sense of regret, he released Remus with a soft pop and sat up on his knees.

"Sirius," Remus murmured and beckoned him. Gently removing his fingers, he crawled up and kissed Remus deeply, then pulled away.

Before he could wet his fingers again, Remus pulled his arms in and tugged him up further. "No, let me," he said, pulling Sirius astride his face on all fours and sucking Sirius' cock into his mouth.

Sirius moaned, enjoying the warmth of Remus' mouth almost a little too much. With yet another vague regret, he withdrew and crawled backwards, pausing to kiss him again. "I must say, I prefer your way," he whispered.

Remus nipped at his lip, wriggled his arms free and pushed down on his shoulders. "Stop stalling and fuck me already, you twat," he teased.

Sirius laughed and bit him back, but obeyed nonetheless, positioning himself between Remus' legs and lifting them up, Remus' calves against his shoulders. "Just for that, I ought to…"

"Yes," Remus asked hoarsely.

He gripped Remus' hips, inserted the tip of his cock just inside and thrust, both of them crying out, all banter forgotten.

Sirius paused when he noticed Remus' eyes watering slightly, but his hips were pushing down, calf muscles clenching and flexing against his shoulder, and his fingers clutched the rug beneath him.

"Don't stop, oh God, please don't stop!" Remus cried softly.

He didn't stop.

He could feel the sweat dripping off his brow, down his back, and his shoulders and chest were damp where Remus' legs pressed against him. His eyes were focused on Remus' face, and at that moment, his world consisted of the glorious tight heat enveloping his cock, the heavy-lidded look of bliss in Remus' eyes as his head rolled to and fro, and the entreaties of , "oh God… don't ever stop… more… yes… oh, fuck me harder… God, yes…" falling from his lips.

When he felt himself faltering, he moved a hand to grasp Remus' cock, closed his eyes and shuddered, crying out and coming hard while his hips instinctively continued to thrust deep inside. He felt Remus arch his back and press his legs tight against him, spilling wetly over his hand with a load moan, and he slumped down, head resting against Remus' chest.

"Pads," Remus whispered an age later.

"Mmm?"

"Legs. Cramping."

"Mmm? Oh. S'rry," he mumbled, pushing himself up and helping Remus gingerly lower his legs to the floor and gently massaging his thighs.

"Thanks," Remus murmured, and stretched out a hand, tugging Sirius up to lie next to him on the rug.

Sirius curled on his side and rested his head on Remus' shoulder, draping his free arm across Remus' chest. Remus brought his arm around him, fingers gently grazing along his waist, and he closed his eyes and sighed, feeling sated and ridiculously contented.

"God, I missed you," Remus whispered.

He smiled and rocked forward a little, planting a soft kiss to Remus' collarbone. "Love you, too, Moony," he murmured and fell asleep.

When he awoke, he was lying on the sofa with his head resting on Remus' lap, fire still burning brightly in the hearth. Remus was sitting up reading a book, fingers idly toying with Sirius' hair. Both of them were still naked, but the other evidence of their earlier activities had been cleaned up.

He stretched languorously and rolled over onto his back. Remus glanced down and smiled. "Enjoy your kip?"

"Mmmhmm," he replied. "You should have woken me."

"It's all right. I slept for a bit, too," Remus said. "You just looked so peaceful. And exhausted. I'd planned to wake you before too long anyway."

Sirius reached up, carelessly tossed the book aside, and pulled Remus down for a kiss.

And another, longer kiss.

Remus sat up and shook his head, an amused frown playing on his lips as he glanced down at Sirius' groin. "Sirius, you can't possibly…"

"Oh, yes I can. And," he added, turning his head and playfully nudging at the half-hard cock next to his face, "so can you, apparently."

Remus chucked him gently on the chin and laughed. "Prat. But upstairs this time! I want a proper bed."

Sirius sat up and smirked. "Codger." He stood, picking up their discarded clothes and tossed Remus his robe. "Here. You put out the fire." He picked up his wand and grinned. "I'll take care of the charm on the stairs."

They were very late to breakfast.