Disclaimer: Lupin and Sirius belong to J.K. Rowling and not to me.
Written for a circle quote challenge. My thanks to the lovely Gnat for the quote.
In the Morning
"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
~ The Princess Bride
"Where is James?"
Across the room, Sirius turned from the window and let the curtain fall. A thin gleam of sunset sneaked through the cracks at the borders of the curtains, casting orange and red stripes on what was otherwise a rather dingy floor. Dingy with a healthy layer of dust, Remus thought. It surprised him how much dirt the house could accumulate in a month.
"Downstairs, with Peter," Sirius said. "He wouldn't be able to navigate the stairs."
Remus nodded, even as Sirius' words tightened his throat. "You should go back to the castle. All of you."
Sirius crossed the room, looking around the bare wooden walls as if wishing for a place to sit. "Don't be an ass, Remus. We've been working on this for three years."
"I could kill you, you know."
Sirius gave him a look, frowned, and then laughed. "I don't think there's a time and place that James and I couldn't handle you." He crouched down to the floor and leaned against the wall adjacent to the window. "You're not going to kill us." He craned his neck, peering up to the ceiling and resting the back of his head on the dark wooden planks of the wall.
Remus shook his head, worry and a measure of fear pushing the words out. "You don't know as much as you think you do."
Sirius looked at him, surprised. "Of course I do." He grinned and tapped his fingers against the side of his robe. "You really are being an ass, Lupin. Don't you trust us?"
That was unfair, Remus thought. Instead of answering, he crossed to where Sirius had been standing at the window moments ago and parted the curtain. The sun was disappearing behind the rim of trees that flanked the house; the trees were black, made blind by the fading light beyond them.
It wasn't that he didn't appreciate the gesture. When James first suggested it three years ago, he'd been flattered, and a bit overwhelmed. Overwhelmed that his friends would do that, that he *had* friends who would do that. Until Hogwarts, the secret had been too deep, too much a part of himself to share with others; deep and dark and dangerous.
And he did trust them: with his secret, their ability to change and hold the change at crucial moments. He'd seen them practice the transformations, over and over again, until he'd been awed by the thought that something that took so much work, so much power and control, he did so naturally. And that, he thought, was what made it unnatural.
"How much longer?" Sirius asked him from the floor.
Remus peered through the glass, into the darkest of night before the moon rose. "A few minutes, maybe."
Sirius stood up and pulled his robe over his head, beginning to unbutton his shirt. "I can't manage the clothes yet," he said, almost apologetic as Remus gave him a questioning look. "James can, and even Peter, but I haven't gotten the knack of it down. How do you do it?"
Remus shrugged and turned away, listening to the whisper of cloth falling discarded to the floor behind him. "I don't know."
"No, of course not," and now Sirius sounded embarrassed. Remus imagined him there: awkward with the blunder, momentarily displaced from the self-confident and always composed Sirius that he knew. He was about to turn from the window, to tell him not to worry about it, when he felt a familiar tug through his veins, as if his bones were melting into blood and skin, formed and deformed outside of all natural processes.
"Sirius," he said in sudden panic, and then the change was on him.
The stag was ahead, its hooves skimming lightly over moon-washed grass. There was something clutched to its back, a small, dark form, but his wolf eyes couldn't make it out. It seemed natural to follow them through the clearing to the press of trees in the distance. The freedom was exhilarating. It was as if everything was new: the running, the absence of walls, the rush of cold air that blurred his eyes. The ground was damp and cold on the pads of his feet as he ran.
A different scent than the deer's drifted into awareness; different and familiar, and desirable; he swerved suddenly to catch it as it snaked, elusive, in and out of his senses. To his right there was a cluster of lights. Noises, heat, and the scent was stronger. Blood rushed and flamed; he swerved again, away from the trees and the stag, now in the distance. What he wanted was in the other direction.
He checked as the way was suddenly blocked. The lights were close, and the humans--the word inserted itself into his thoughts as if by some other consciousness, but it was enough to tighten his jaw, to dig claws into the earth. He changed course, looking for a way around the thing that paced him and tried to force him back to the line of trees. A feint to the left earned him a growl; he shook his head in frustration and sought to outrun what was beside him, to circle back.
He hardly felt the ground he stretched out, running full-out now; even then, it kept pace with him. The trees were rushing close and then they were among them. He slowed to navigate, jumping lightly over a pile of brush, feeling the burn of tree bark as he passed too closely. It was still there, running alongside him. Not a wolf, but something familiar.
The scent was fading as earth and aged trees took its place. He stopped, rearing back on his hind legs. The other one stopped as well, circling back to face him. He growled lightly, a warning with teeth, but the other animal was silent.
He leaned back, ready to whirl and sprint back the way they'd come. It was quicker. Before he sensed the movement, he felt the sear of teeth digging into his neck through fur and skin. The pain was fierce, and he stumbled with the force of it. Blood trickled and fell lightly to the leaves around him as he shook his head to clear the pain. In front of him, it shone on bared, white teeth.
Then he was up and running again, not back but deeper into the woods as the dog loped behind him, driving him.
He smelled water.
The dog beside him growled once as he veered slightly to intercept the scent, but then subsided. For hours it had shadowed him, sometimes close enough to feel the heat filtering from its body, and sometimes further off on the edges of his perception. It was close to him now as they slowed to a trot, the forest thick and dark. He reached out and bit it lightly on its jaw; it yelped and shied away, then returned a moment later.
The stag had rejoined them, and the small shape still clinging to its back. A strange pack, the wolf thought, but somehow familiar.
The water was close. They cleared a small cluster of stone and followed the scent down through a maze of roots and eroded earth. The stream glowed silver with the force of the moon as they drank, the dog standing shoulder to shoulder with him. It was larger by a hand's breadth, and shone black.
There was a rustle across the way and he looked up, alert, water dripping from his jaw. On the other side of the stream a unicorn had stopped to drink. He stood still in the water and watched it, frozen.
The dog looked up as well, to the unicorn, then to him, but he paid it no attention.
Something swelled inside his wolf's body that broke and regained force like a pulse. The unicorn was silver, like the water slipping over his paws, and the moon. He had no scent for beauty, and he howled with it.
The dog laid down at his feet and waited, its head resting on its paws. The trees echoed, but moon was silent as he howled. After a while, the unicorn faded back into the trees, its thirst quenched.
Remus woke with his head pillowed in black fur. For a moment he could not recall where he was. The dull wooden boards of the house. Footprints in the dust of the floor, and pawprints as well. His chest tightened and he felt a familiar wash of misery, a tinge of self-loathing. He knew it was ridiculous, but he couldn't help but hope, each time, that the change hadn't come. That he had paid whatever dues thought to be owed, that the moon's light had passed him by.
"Remus," he heard, and, startled, he sat up. Sirius had changed back without him noticing the shift from fur to skin. His arms were pale against the floorboards. He sat up as well, wincing a little. "That was ."
Remus could see that, for once, Sirius had lost his knack for words. He nodded, but the misery closed his throat to speech. He leaned over to where Sirius' robe lay in a rumpled heap, and handed it back to him.
Sirius held the robe but didn't put it on. He caught Remus' eyes. "That was amazing," he said.
Remus thought back. The night was a blur. But his muscles ached like they never had before during his monthly visits here. He reached up to finger his throat. There was a small tear there, and he could feel crusted blood. It was tender to the touch.
"It was different," he said.
Sirius caught his arm as he would have stood up. "But it was better?"
Remus let his hand drop. The misery was still there, but alongside it a strange, unfamiliar feeling pushed through. He tried to discover its source, and as he heard the clatter of footsteps on the stairs, he realized. He had always before woken up here alone.
James burst through the doorway, followed quickly by Peter. "Remus!" he said, his face slightly flushed and his hair its usual dishevelment, though now, at least, he had an excuse for it. "That was ."
A grin slowly tugging at the corner of his mouth, Remus stood up. He could hear Sirius getting dressed behind him.
It wasn't until later, until James had led them through the tunnel to the Whomping Willow, still flushed and reeling with what they'd accomplished, that he was able to pull Sirius away from the others.
Sirius looked at him, his eyebrow curved in question.
"Yes," Remus told him. "It was better."