Many thanks to Halrloprillalar for beta and putting up with me, and to Natalka for the scoop on London houses.
Three days at 12 Grimmauld Place. Set during OotP.
Pro patria mori
The pub was nearly deserted. November's snows still lay frozen outside, and the floors were streaked with tracked-in mud and melting piles of snow. It smelled very strongly of old smoke and wet wool, and a little of wet dog. The source of the latter was stretched out in front of the fire, brown fur crackling with the heat, one eye on its owner on the far side of the pub. Remus smiled, reminded of Sirius.
He covered a yawn and leaned his elbows on the table, decoratively marked with wandering cracks and stains, wobbling a little under his weight. He should have picked a table further from the fire. The heat was making him sleepy. Everything made him sleepy these days, and Remus thought sometimes that he'd give his right arm for a few more hours each night, except that he'd need his right arm in this upcoming war.
Nathan was late. Maybe he never even received the message. They'd been putting double protections on owls these days, but owls were always vulnerable. No help for it. He took a sip from his pint glass while he waited. The tweedish looking jacket Sirius had unearthed for him in the attic itched and was hot, and he thought longingly of wizard robes.
A man with thinning hair and a red face appeared at the table, pulling out the chair opposite. He was wearing something stiff and dressed up and looked just as uncomfortable in the Muggle clothing as Remus. He tugged at the collar of his shirt.
"Nathan," Remus said pleasantly. He'd had a lot of practice these past months. "Thanks for meeting me."
"Of course, Lupin, of course," Nathan said. He still looked uncomfortable, his eyes darting around them, anywhere but at Remus; when their eyes did meet, Remus could see lingering traces of shock, probably at Remus's appearance, and an air of nervousness Remus didn't remember from when they were boys.
Remus knew he'd changed since school by the way everyone looked at him, wondering if they should say anything about the extra grey in his hair; apprehensive, too, that at any moment he would collapse on them. Furtive glances he suspected were based in a deeper and more honest fear, that they'd suddenly find themselves with a wolf on their hands, full moon or no.
Nathan himself looked only marginally different from when they were at school together; less hair, more weight. Lines around his eyes that shifted with the firelight.
"You, er, look good," Nathan said awkwardly. Remus smiled. "It's been what, thirteen years? Since Jolie and I were married."
"How is she?"
"She's well. Two kids now, boy and a girl. Here." Nathan took out two pictures from the breast pocket of his jacket, his face lighting with pride masked by diffidence, and handed them across the table. Remus peered at them. The girl stared back with the stony-eyed glare of adolescence before flipping her hair and turning away; the boy stuck out his tongue. Remus handed them back.
"I wasn't sure you were going to come," he said.
"I almost didn't," Nathan said, tucking the pictures back into his pocket.
"Because of what I am?"
"Well," Nathan said, his eyebrows twitching in either surprise or renewed nervousness, "I, er, did hear something about that."
Remus smiled without irony. "I expected the news to travel quickly."
Nathan shrugged. "It's not news so much as rumor. Most people don't believe it, to tell you the truth." He peered at Remus curiously. "Were you one at school, then?" At Remus's nod, his voice pitched up a notch, words falling out short and hurried, "Well, and I have nothing against werewolves, you understand, or at least ones that I know, rather, but I--"
He stuttered to a halt as the barman appeared at his shoulder. Remus leaned back in his chair as the next few minutes were spent in the awkward business of ordering Muggle drinks, thankful that they didn't need to dwell on that point, at least, any longer. He allowed himself a moment to wonder what the true reactions of his former classmates had been. Surprise, maybe. Many would have taken the news gleefully. Some, he was sure, must have suspected.
The barman left. "Do you know why I contacted you?" Remus said.
"I have a fair idea," said Nathan, his expression gone wary.
Remus leaned forward, lowering his voice. "You remember what it was like."
"Of course I do," Nathan said irritably. "Who doesn't remember? But what makes you think any of that's going to happen again? You-Know-Who," he said the name in a low whisper, "is dead. Gone. That's all in the past." He spoke with the voice of a man who has rehearsed the words over and over again to himself.
Remus leveled his gaze at him. "You know that's not true."
Nathan shifted in his seat, staring glumly across the room. "I contract with the Ministry, you know. They think Dumbledore's mad."
"You've known Dumbledore as long as I have. Do you think he's mad?"
"He was never what I would call sane, Remus."
"He's been right every time. And I know, Nathan. I know Voldemort's back."
Maybe he'd pushed too hard, because now Nathan was staring at him, expression challenging, his eyes gone stubborn. "How do you know, Remus? Have you seen him? Seen any evidence of him? Because I haven't heard anything. Nothing that I would give credence to, anyway. A few rumblings from people who should have retired a long time ago."
"You sound like the Ministry," Remus said.
A shrug. "Maybe they're not far wrong."
The barman returned, putting down a full pint of the same thing Remus was drinking. Nathan eyed it skeptically.
"Look, Nathan," Remus said, when they were alone again. He folded his hands together in front of him, studying them, organizing his thoughts carefully. "It's not as if you don't have first-hand knowledge of what Voldemort can do. You were a lot of help to the Order before. We could use that help again."
The lines at Nathan's eyes deepened; his shoulders stooped a little. He looked like a man struggling, or like someone lost.
"Even if you're right, Remus--and I'm not saying you are." His eyes spoke differently, but Remus could tell that he'd made his decision, probably before he even arrived. "It's not the same this time. I have a wife, Lupin. A family. There are some chances I can't take."
"I know," Remus said.
His eyes shifting around them as if grasping for words, Nathan continued, "You asked me if I remembered what it was like. It's not something you forget. Olivia's dead because of You-Know-Who." Remus looked down again at his hands. He'd forgotten that Nathan's sister had been killed, a late casualty. Too many names to remember.
"I can't do it, Remus. Not again."
He hadn't counted on Nathan, but he'd hoped. With just a little more persuasion he might be able to bring him in. Remind him of all the people who were yet to be killed if they didn't do something now, the threat to the whole wizarding world. That perhaps everything they'd known and cherished would be destroyed. That they had obligations, responsibilities.
He didn't think he had the heart for it.
"I understand," Remus said.
"But it's been good to see you," Nathan said with forced cheer, offering it up like an apology. "Like old times, eh?"
"Sure," Remus said.
Nathan stood up from the table, hurriedly pulling on the coat he'd draped over the back of the chair. "And take care of yourself. You're looking a bit, er, peaky."
"Give my best to Jolie," Remus said, but Nathan was already at the pub's door.
"Obliviate," Remus whispered. Nathan paused in mid-stride, stumbling a little before shaking his head like a man just coming awake and continuing on through the door, not looking back.
The barman wandered tentatively over, likely looking for payment for Nathan's untouched pint and the still half-full one in front of Remus. Remus hoped he had enough Muggle currency on him. He never could figure out the bits of paper and strangely-shaped coins, and he'd taken a year of Muggle Studies, even.
He didn't wait for the change.
The house at 12 Grimmauld Place was quiet as he let himself in, not even the curtains over the former occupant's portrait stirring. The gas lamps along the hall were set low, and there were more shadows than light creeping along the walls, peering down at him from the chandeliers with grim, hostile glares. For all he knew, the shadows were indeed alive, waiting for their opportunity to be rid of his unwanted presence, to draw the house back into the murky depths that was the Black family history. Remus put nothing past this house.
He missed the sound and chaos of the Weasleys, the brief weeks over the summer when the house had been alive in a way he doubted it had ever been. But the solitude was welcome, too. No Molly Weasley peering over the collective shoulders of the household in well-meaning fretfulness, no inevitable tension from all the various, disparate personalities crowded together, waiting for someone--him by default most of the time--to mold them together, turn them into something passing as a team with a common purpose.
He shed the tweed jacket, now grown unbearably uncomfortable, as he slipped through the hall, draping it over the knob of the banister before taking the stairs up, steps creaking.
His spirits sank when he saw the diminutive form of Kreacher, arms crossed resentfully, standing on the first floor landing.
"Master's not here," said the house-elf with a sniff. "Away, he is, with his ugly brute friend, dirty little halfbreed."
Remus forced himself to be civil. The house-elf couldn't help it, he reminded himself. It's what he was bred to. Still, he allowed himself one glorious moment to fantasize chucking Kreacher over the railing to the floor below. "You mean he's upstairs with Buckbeak. Who isn't a halfbreed, by the way."
"Not knowing any names, Kreacher isn't." He gave Remus a sly look. "Mistress doesn't hold with familiarity with halfbreeds." The round points of his eyes glowed in the landing's shadows. "Master Regulus used to kill werewolves. Hunted them down, he did. Spread their bones and buried them."
Remus raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure he did."
"Master Regulus would turn in his grave if he knew werewolves lived in his house. Unnatural, it is."
"I'm sure he would," Remus agreed.
His face screwed up in frustration, Kreacher's voice shrilled even higher, his thin body shaking with rage. "Traitors, they all are, mudbloods and halfbreeds, what Mistress wouldn't do, filthy traitors, dirty unnatural creatures---"
Remus left him to it, tuning out the shrieking of the house-elf that followed him up the stairs, until he turned a corner and the petulant voice was swallowed up. He rubbed his forehead. Sometimes he thought Sirius had it right, that they should just chop off the elf's head and be done with it.
Buckbeak's room was on the third floor of the house, in the large bedroom that took up nearly the whole level. As he went up even more stairs, Remus wondered if the former Blacks had arranged it that way to be literally above the rest of their household, or if they'd simply enjoyed having the servants troop up an extra flights of steps.
Now it was filled with the dubious scent of hippogriff. Sirius was grooming the room's new occupant when Remus reached the doorway. Buckbeak's eyes were closed with pleasure, his body held perfectly still as Sirius worked a brush over the horse parts of him, careful not to disturb any of his feathers.
Remus leaned against the doorway and watched. The simple task of grooming smoothed out the lines etched on Sirius's face, and it was as if there were two of them silk-screened together, sharp edges still showing through the cracks of this younger visage. It made his stomach twist. Remus looked down at the straw-covered floor, letting an emotion emerge and pass through him before it drifted down, deep down, submerged again for the moment.
They'd had their chance. Didn't it go something like that? That chances, once relinquished, were no longer there for the taking. Every few years one is transformed entirely new. Someone had said that. Someone who'd had no idea of costs exacted, the loss of something taken before its time.
The knowledge hadn't done him any good.
"Remus," Sirius said, finally noticing him in the doorway. Remus looked up.
"When did you get back?" Sirius's hand paused mid-stroke. Buckbeak's eyes fluttered open at this abrupt halt to his grooming. Catching sight of Remus, he inclined his befeathered head aristocratically, as if he hadn't been practically purring just a few moments ago. Remus returned the greeting solemnly.
"Just now," Remus said. "I met Kreacher on the stairs. He told me you were up here."
Sirius snorted, his eyes darkening, and Remus regretted his mention of the house-elf. It was hard to know these days what was likely to set Sirius off, but the house-elf was always a sure wager. He said, to lighten the mood, "You never told me your brother hunted werewolves."
Sirius snorted again, this time with derision. "A likely story. Regulus wouldn't even go near the hunting dogs my father kept. Shrieked like a girl whenever they were let in the cellar in bad weather. I doubt he'd ever even seen a werewolf." A smile twitched. "Except you, of course."
"I have to say I'm relieved to hear it." Remus let the doorway hold him up, feeling muscles relax, the tensions of the day dissipate. It was a pleasant scene, the two of them, and Remus let his imagination drift, wondering what it would have been like if the past fourteen years had been written the way he'd expected, back when he was younger and less tired.
"You just missed Kingsley," Sirius said. "He left an hour ago."
"What did he want?"
Sirius shrugged. "Dropped off a roll of parchment for you. I took it down to the library." Remus nodded. Probably just a routine report. "How did your meeting go?"
Remus's mouth twisted. "Not well."
Sirius resumed his grooming of Buckbeak, who sighed in not-so-subtle relief. "Nathan Brick's a coward. He was a coward when we were in school. I imagine he hasn't changed much."
"He's a good man," Remus said, sharper than he'd intended. But Sirius didn't notice, or didn't seem to, anyway.
"You remember how he was at Hogwarts. No backbone."
"He's concerned about his family. And rightly so." He wondered just who he was trying to convince.
Sirius ignored him. "We can do better. The Order can do better." Buckbeak squawked at a particularly rough swipe of the brush, and Sirius patted him apologetically.
"Besides," he said, catching Remus's eyes, "we have enough members already. Why do we need more?"
"We could always use more people, Sirius."
It wasn't the first time they'd butted heads over this. He didn't particularly feel like arguing the point now.
"I just think," Sirius began--and Remus noted that he was choosing his words carefully, an approximation of a very un-Sirius-like tact, "that we need to be more careful about who we let into the Order. Anyone could be working for the other side. There's no way for us to know. Take Snape, for instance---"
So much for tact. "You know he's loyal."
"I don't know that. Neither do you. Not so long ago he was taking orders from Voldemort. Do we really need that kind of risk? I just think---"
"It wasn't 'not so long ago,' Sirius. He's been our side for a while now. A long time has passed."
He regretted the words as he spoke them, even before Sirius stiffened and turned away. Silence was thick in the room. Remus forced his body upright. A headache had come on. He really needed to sleep, and he really needed to do some work. Look over whatever Kingsley had dropped off for him. He debated, knowing that neither would be fully satisfying right now.
"I'll be in the library," he said finally. Sirius, who was stroking Buckbeak's head--Remus didn't know if it was to reassure himself or the hippogriff--didn't answer.
The library was on the first floor, down the corridor from the drawing room, tucked in between two bedrooms and surprisingly roomy. He'd been using the smaller of those bedrooms lately because it entered off the library itself. It was tempting to go straight through to it, forget about work for the moment and just rest. But the argument with Sirius had wound him to a restless tension; he didn't think he'd be able to sleep now, anyway.
He sat down at the room's only desk, aged to a rough dark wood. The parchment Kingsley dropped off was rolled up neatly on top. He ignored it for the moment, keying open a drawer with a spell muttered under his breath and shifting through a number of parchment rolls of different sizes and lengths until he found the one he wanted. Recruitment files, with a list that was depressingly short. If anyone other than the Order tried to read it, it would look like gibberish. A spell provided by Bill. Remus imagined it was a useful one in the banking business. He found Nathan's name and crossed it out, making a few notations in the margin in case they ever wanted to try again.
Might as well see what Kingsley had to say. A brief glance on unrolling revealed that it was the routine report he'd thought it would be. More alarming developments in the Ministry, as if that situation could have gotten any worse. Remus closed his eyes and thought regretfully of Harry and the other Hogwarts students, caught in a political battle that had nothing to do with what they were all risking their necks for.
Remus started and blinked his eyes open. He must have dozed off. Sirius stood just inside the doorway of the library. Remus's first instinct was to apologize, smooth over the earlier argument with a few words; they'd been doing a lot of that lately. But Sirius's eyes told him it was okay, they were okay, or at least it was forgotten for now.
"I'm off to bed," Sirius said. He stood a little awkwardly, his robes draped at an angle that revealed his gauntness even more than usual. "I thought tomorrow we could tackle the wine cellar."
Remus nodded. The rest of the house was clean of all major spelltraps and lurking creatures, but they'd left the cellar with a general protection spell over its entrance, too busy with other things. No harm in being thorough, though. "Did you read Kingsley's report?"
Sirius nodded. "It's not getting any better, is it," he said wryly.
The weather wasn't helping either. They spent so much time in the house that the pass of days and nights was much of the same, but more often than not the windows showed a scene dark with either night or snow. And although the house was bespelled for temperature control, he often wondered if it was slightly off, or if the general dampness of the house made thorough heating impossible.
He knew, though, that whatever was wrong with him had nothing to do with either the weather or the Ministry.
"See you in the morning," Sirius said, ducking back through the doorway and disappearing into the shadows. Remus had an urge to call him back, cozy up for a chat, tell Sirius all of his stupid meaningless worries even though Sirius likely already knew them.
It used to be easier, he thought. But maybe memory was just unreliable, and it had never been easy.
Shadows and secrets
"Who put this on, anyway?"
Remus blinked as Sirius swore, colorfully and admirably. They were kneeling by the hatch door of the wine cellar, in a small room off the kitchen, and Sirius's brow was furrowed in irritation.
"Alastor, I think."
"Figures," said Sirius. "That man has a mind like a rat trap."
Remus tended to agree. "He is thorough," he said.
Sirius grunted. "But I think we can get this off without his help." He pointed to the far side of the hatch, to a faded scuff mark that almost seemed a natural part of the wooden floorboards. "Feel that?" Remus slid over to the mark and nodded as he felt the magic, like the pull of an anchor. "I think if we dismantle that part of the spell, the rest should follow."
Remus took out his wand and probed the mark. It was like something stiff and gooey, the resistance of a field, and his wand sent up a few warning sparks. He closed his eyes and focused, testing out the field's boundaries, thinking back to numerous other protection spells he'd both constructed and dismantled, and to the years of magical theory droned into him at school. Alastor always did like a strong grounding in theory.
There. He thought he had it. He flicked his wand, a short, stiff flick, and muttered under his breath words dredged up from memory. The strain of the spell intensified; he felt a corresponding strain in himself, caught in a tug of war between his wand and the spell, until he finally felt the anchor loosen and snap back. Sirius swore again. When Remus opened his eyes, he saw Sirius back on his heels, staring at the remains of the spell that draped like a translucent skein from the wall before it slid down, dissolving as it went.
"That was strong," Sirius said.
Remus nodded. He rather hoped that wasn't a taste of whatever still awaited them in the cellar.
Sirius was feeling along the edge of the door for the handle, tucked down flat against the boards. He forced the handle up, the creak of rusty iron sounding a protest, and Remus knelt down beside him to grasp the other side of it until it stood straight up.
"I have no idea when this was last opened," Sirius said, staring down at the still-closed hatch.
Remus glanced around them. "Maybe we should seal the room first. We don't want anything getting into the rest of the house."
Sirius nodded. "I'll do that. You see if you can hear anything." He stood up and crossed to the doorway of the room, pulling out his wand.
Remus laid his head flat on the boards of the hatch. One of the Weasley twins' extendable ears would have been handy right now, if they could find a way to get it down there. He closed his eyes and probed for any signs of magical disturbance, feeling his heartbeat slow with the concentration, his breathing deepen.
"Anything?" Sirius said from above him.
Remus straightened and shook his head. "Either there's nothing there, or I just can't sense anything through the wood. Or it's very good at hiding," he added.
Sirius grinned. "Who knows what my father might have down there." He crossed to the other side of the hatch and leaned down to grasp the handle. "I can get this," he said. "You be ready for anything that comes out."
Remus crouched by the hatch, his wand out, as Sirius slowly lifted it up.
A very strong smell of must drifted up. Wooden steps led down, the bottom of them hidden in shadows, and long silvery cobwebs wove their way in and out of the steps. It was very quiet.
Sirius crouched beside Remus, his wand held out. They exchanged a look. "Aperio," Sirius said commandingly, the word swallowed up by the dark silence of the cellar. Remus braced himself.
"Well," Sirius said, lowering his wand. "So much for that." He stared down the steps gloomily. "I suppose we'll have to go down just to be sure."
"We should," Remus said, not liking the prospect any more than Sirius. He sighed. "Lumos," he said, and the tip of his wand barely cut into the dark below. He tested one of the steps with his foot, holding onto the edge for balance, and slowly made his way down.
The steps didn't go down that far after all. When he reached the bottom, there was only a foot or so between his head and the ceiling. The floor was concrete, layered with a good half inch of dust, and he had to suppress the urge to sneeze.
"Seems deserted," Sirius said behind him, holding up his wand like a torch. With the combined light Remus could see wooden racks filled with wine bottles grey with dust, and little else. It wasn't a large cellar. There was barely enough room for the two of them.
Sirius slid past him to the racks, pulling out a bottle. He wiped it clean on the sleeve of his robes. "My father always did have expensive tastes," he said.
There must have been hundreds of bottles here, Remus thought, glad that they'd waited to clean this room until after Mundungus had left. He circled the room, such as it was. There was no sound except for the scuff of his footsteps, no sense of any other presence. He turned back to Sirius, who was wiping off another bottle, glancing at the label before replacing it and pulling out another as a shadow slid down the rack toward him.
Sirius started back, raising the bottle by the neck in front of him like a club, looking around wildly. Remus jumped forward and caught sight of the edge of the shadow--creature, whatever it was--sliding up over the edge of the open hatch.
"What was that?" Sirius said, lowering the bottle, his eyes wide.
"I have no idea." Remus stood at the foot of the steps, peering upward at the square of light. He couldn't see anything from that angle so he stepped up to the bottom stair, trying to see around the edge.
He saw a black patch scurry along the corner of the ceiling in the room above, disappearing just as quickly from his line of sight.
"It's up there, whatever it is," Remus said. "Good thing you sealed the room."
Sirius moved to stand beside him. "It could have attacked me, but didn't. That's encouraging."
Remus gave him a wry smile. "Somehow I doubt it's friendly."
"I didn't mean that. It's just that it's got us at a bit of a disadvantage," Sirius said, nodding at the narrow confines of the steps, "and it helps to know it won't attack as soon as we show ourselves."
Remus tapped his wand to his nose, thinking. "I'll go up first, try to get to the far side of the room. Perhaps we can catch it in crossfire."
Sirius nodded. Remus went up the stairs slowly, trying to catch another glimpse of the shadow as he went. He heard the creak of Sirius behind him. He ran up the last few steps and whirled around, backing up against the wall. Sirius burst up and mimicked Remus's stance.
The room seemed deserted. No sign of any movement. Remus scanned the walls and corners of the room, but there were only the ordinary shadows cast by the gas light overhead.
There. It was like the movement of a mouse. A little twitch in one corner. He caught Sirius's eye, and saw that he'd noticed it, too. They circled closer to it cautiously.
"Stupefy!" Sirius said suddenly, his wand held out, catching the shadow dead on. But it only froze for a moment before scuttling away, sliding around the room so quickly that Remus couldn't track its movement anymore. He thought it ended up on the ceiling somewhere.
Not a good development. He traced every bit of the ceiling with his eyes, inching around in a circle, straining to see. There was nothing.
"Do you suppose it found a way out?" he asked Sirius.
Sirius shrugged. "The seal should have kept it in, but I've never seen anything like it. Who knows what it's able to do."
"Can we get through the seal without taking it down? We should probably---"
He caught the movement in the corner of his eye.
"Petrificus Totalus!" he shouted at the same time as Sirius. Their wands crackled. Caught by the two shots of energy, the shadow wriggled and shook in place until it burst in a shower of black sparks that filled the room, pieces of it falling to the floor where they crumbled into dust.
Remus stared down at the remains. He suspected he had bits of it in his hair.
"That was interesting," Sirius commented.
"You don't suppose there are more of them, do you?" Remus cast a glance back at the cellar door.
"Likely there are." Sirius sighed. "We should do some more research first, find a different spell."
Remus agreed. There could be dozens of them down there. Of one mind, they heaved the hatch door forward until it fell with a crash and shake of the wooden boards.
Then Sirius laughed a little, looking down at his hand where he still had the bottle of wine grasped by its neck. He lifted it up. "I could do with a drink," he said, glancing at Remus.
It was barely noon. Remus raised an eyebrow at him. Then again, what the hell.
"Should we replace the protection spell?" he asked.
"I keyed the seal on the door so that we could pass through," Sirius said. "We can leave that up for now and do the rest of the cleanup later."
Remus found two clean goblets in the kitchen and an ancient corkscrew topped by a silver knob in the rough shape of a hawk. He handed the corkscrew to Sirius.
The kitchen was as gloomy as the rest of the house, but it was one of the few rooms Remus felt at home in. Perhaps it was just that they spent most of their time there, or that the echoes of the house's summer occupants still lingered. It didn't seem as oppressive. He aimed his wand at the fireplace across the room, which was already set with kindling but not yet lit for the day. A brief cracking, popping sound later, flames shot up nearly to the mantle before they settled down again to a cozy level, brightening the room considerably.
At the table, Sirius was already pouring the wine. "There might be something in the Calamitus text," he was saying. "Or Pimsey's Dark Arts."
Remus nodded and accepted the goblet held out to him. "A blanket spell, so we're not trying to pick them off one by one." He took a sip of the wine. Not bad. At least it hadn't turned to vinegar.
"My father had a collection of spell books," Sirius said musingly, "hidden up in the library somewhere. I never could find where they were. Besides, I'm sure they're well protected. Not because they were dangerous," he added, "though half the spells in them are illegal, I'm sure. I think he just didn't want his grubby children getting their hands on them." He laughed a little, not pleasantly.
"I've been meaning to ask Moody to go over the library," Remus said. "I haven't dared touch any of the books. There are some interesting titles, though. Your father was quite the collector."
Sirius grimaced. "My father was quite a lot of things." He played with the stem of his wine goblet, hunched over the table and brooding a bit.
Remus watched him. They'd all changed, but maybe Sirius least of all, strange as that was. Physically he'd changed; it had been a blow two years ago, seeing in person just how much. But time didn't seem to work the same in Azkaban. Sometimes he felt like he was talking to the ghost of Sirius, or that he'd been transported back fifteen years.
"We're almost out of rats," Sirius said. "And Buckbeak's been giving me long-suffering looks. I don't think he cares much for them."
"I'm not sure we could bring in anything, er, larger."
"It would be easiest to let him hunt for himself," Sirius said. "We could arrange it so no one would notice."
Remus raised his eyebrow at him.
"Well then," Sirius said gloomily into his wine goblet, "we need more rats."
"We can ask Mundungus. He didn't have any problems finding the last batch for us."
"Speaking of," Sirius said, gesturing to a grey lumpy bag Remus hadn't noticed before propped up in the corner of the kitchen. Remus eyed it warily.
"Don't tell me."
"Augurey feathers. Says he's got a buyer in Cumberland, needs a few more days to negotiate."
Remus shrugged. He wished that the illicit traffic in phoenix feathers was the greatest of their concerns right now. "Just don't let Molly find out." He sank back in his chair a little, tapping the side of his goblet idly. "I've been going over the recruitment files."
Sirius made a face. "No more Nathan Bricks, I hope."
Remus let that pass. "There are a few other people I'd like to talk to." He took another sip of wine. "Dumbledore has already approved them."
Sirius pushed up from the table abruptly and crossed to the sink, his eyes searching out the room restlessly. "Then why are you asking me? You don't need my permission." He opened a few cupboards, shut them in disgust. "Do we have any food in this house?"
"In the larder," Remus said. "Molly dropped some off a few days ago. And I wasn't asking your permission."
Sirius opened the larder. "Cheese," he said. "And a stew of some sort." He peered down at the latter suspiciously.
"Pheasant," Remus said. "Molly put a preserve spell on it. And there should be bread in there, too."
Sirius dumped the stew in the cauldron above the fire and brought the cheese and a small loaf of bread over to the table.
He grinned at Remus as he slid back into his chair. "I know you weren't. I was simply pointing it out." He slid the cheese across the table.
"Cheers." Remus broke off a piece and studied it absently. "I should send an owl to Charlie soon, see how he's faring on his end."
Sirius didn't seem to be listening. "At least the food is better this time," he said.
Remus nodded. Last time their headquarters had been a two-room flat on the outskirts of London, Order members apparating in and out with such frequency that you couldn't help knocking over a few people a day just going between the rooms. Nights spent poring over letters and reports, trying to crack Voldemort's codes with seventh-year magic and a few reference books stacked on the floor. They were lucky to even find time to eat, much less cook anything.
"Sturgis filling with place with rotten eggs trying to find a spell for omelets. I swear the smell lingered for days."
Remus looked down at his hands. They'd had to sleep on the roof that night. He remembered what it had been like looking up at the night sky spelled clear of the city's lights, Sirius making an ass of himself showing off just how little he'd learned in their Astronomy lessons. He remembered, too, thinking in that moment that he couldn't help but be happy, however desperate the situation with Voldemort was. Back then, he never doubted they would succeed.
He wondered if Sirius had ever known. He suspected he had.
Sirius's face had turned wistful, mixed with a strange bitterness, Remus thought. Then again, maybe not so strange. Remus ate the cheese, broke off a piece of bread. It was a long time ago. No sense romanticizing the past. There was too much yet to do.
And now Sirius was looking at him with a smile hovering at his lips, like he wanted to say something but didn't know how. "You know, I often wondered---"
"The stew's ready," Remus said lightly.
Sirius glanced over at the cauldron, which was bubbling fiercely. "So it is." He stood up.
Remus took a breath and picked at the bread in his hand until it was a small pile of crumbs in front of him.
There was a sudden crack. Remus blinked and saw Moody standing there, his eye whirling dizzily before he straightened it out with a grimace. "Let myself in," he said gruffly. "Thought I'd find you down here." He took in the wine bottle and the bubbling cauldron. "I see I'm in time for lunch."
Sirius went to find bowls and another glass for Moody, and Remus slid the wine bottle over, relieved by the interruption. "Pull up a chair," he said. Moody eyed him suspiciously, as if there were some hidden motive behind the invitation, but that was just Moody. He settled down stiffly, his ancient, faded robes swirling about his feet rather, his magic eye off whirling again as if they were in imminent danger of dark magic.
Remus suppressed a smile. "I'm glad you're here," he said, folding his hands on the table. "I have a job for you."
"What you need is a specific target for the root word," Moody said, squinting at the top row of books along the library wall. "Else you'll just be waving your wand around like a pixie."
Remus stood just behind him, leaning on the edge of the desk, and across the room Sirius scanned the leather-bound titles idly on his end. "Might as well take 'em all out at once. No sense pussyfooting around." Moody's head whipped around to Sirius, his magic eye rolling back in his head with a sickening lurch. "Don't touch that," he growled.
Sirius, who was reaching for one of the books, froze with his hand in mid-air. He raised an eyebrow in Remus's direction. Remus shrugged.
"Your instincts were right, Lupin," Moody said, ignoring Sirius's look. "This place is crawling with repellant magic." He said it with grim satisfaction. Then he stopped still, his gaze sweeping the library, his head cocked suspiciously. "Why haven't I seen this room before?"
"We only found it a fortnight ago," Remus said. "There was a concealment spell laid on it. Sirius knew it was here, but it took some searching."
"Huh," Moody said, unconvinced. He turned back to the shelf in front of him. "See that?" he said, pointing.
Remus squinted up, feeling suddenly like a teenager again in the middle of his NEWT exams.
"Not there," Moody said impatiently. He jabbed his finger in the air. "That red glow there, see that?"
"I don't have the benefit of a magic eye," Remus reminded him.
Moody scowled and pulled out his wand. He muttered a few words, too low for Remus to hear, and suddenly the library was filled with strange, multi-colored glowing forms, edging along the bookshelves and hunting portraits, perched like fairy lights along the mantle.
Remus could see a faint red glow where Moody had been pointing. "That?"
"That will give you a sting to singe the hair off your arm," Moody said. He scanned the room, scowling. "What we need is…there." He gestured to a shelf a foot away from Sirius's head, to a book whose binding glowed a soft silvery blue. "Pull that out," he said to Sirius. Sirius lifted the book gingerly from its perch. "Bring it over."
Sirius obeyed and laid the book on the desk, and the three of them stood in a half-circle around it. It still glowed. Remus thought it was rather beautiful in its own way. Ethereal. It sent a sliver of ice down his spine.
Moody let his wand hover an inch or so above it, and Remus could feel the low crackle of restrained magic emanating from it, raising the hairs on the back of his neck. The book pulsed as if alive, staring back at them with few good intentions. For the first time, Moody seemed uncertain on how to proceed.
"It's the key," he muttered, "but how---" Shaking his head, he pulled his wand back, reaching down with his other hand to open the book.
There was a loud bang and flash of light, and when Remus blinked past the spots in his vision, he saw Moody thrown back on the floor, sitting upright but with his eyes widened to an almost comical extent, legs sprawled inelegantly.
To Remus's surprise, Moody began to chuckle. "Now that's magic," he said.
Remus offered his hand to help him up, but Moody ignored it. He scrambled up slowly, eyes fixed on the book. "Haven't felt anything like that in a while. That's how you do it," he said with grudging admiration. "Put 'em on strong, make 'em to last." He turned to Sirius. "You open it."
Sirius stared at him. "No, thanks."
"You brought it over here, didn't you? Use your brains, boy. It's obviously keyed to your family."
Sirius still looked doubtful, but he held his hand out to the book tentatively. Remus realized that he was holding his breath, muscles tense, apprehension weighted in the pit of his stomach. He almost reached out to stop him. But then Sirius's hand was resting on the book's cover, washed over pale and ghost-like by the silvery glow as he flipped the cover slowly open. Remus leaned down to read the words, uneasy but also curious to see what such a book would hold.
It wasn't in any language that Remus was familiar with. He doubted it was a language at all. It looked like gibberish. He straightened in disappointment. If there was a coding spell on the book, there was little chance they'd be able to crack it.
Moody, however, seemed unperturbed. "What does it say?" he asked Sirius impatiently. Remus glanced up at him, surprised, then looked at Sirius, whose eyebrows were drawn together in concentration, dark hair falling forward as he bent further over the book.
"It says…." Sirius frowned. He flipped forward a few pages. "I'm not sure, exactly. I think I know, it seems familiar, but also…not."
Remus watched him with some concern. The silver light reflected in Sirius's eyes, giving them a strange, otherworldly cast, as if Sirius was looking into some distant place. Remus supposed he was, in a sense.
"There should be a way to neutralize these other spells," Moody was saying, his eyes fixed on Sirius as well.
"There is," Sirius said slowly. His voice came from far away. Suddenly he straightened, and in a clear voice said several words that seemed to burn the air in front of them, echoing as if they stood in a giant hall and not a small library.
Remus shivered. Around them, the softly glowing lights faded until they were only dim pinpricks that disappeared like candles snuffed out. Moody gave a low whistle.
The silver glow of the book had faded along with the others. Remus saw where the pages were yellowed and stained, the edges torn, before Sirius closed the book with a muffled thump. The dark leather binding was deceptively ordinary.
Sirius picked it up carefully. He appeared even more gaunt than usual, his cheekbones standing out like jagged stones. "I think I've had enough of the Black family magic for one day," Sirius said quietly, and returned the book to its spot on the shelf.
Moody shrugged. "In that case, destroy it. No sense leaving items like that around for anyone to find." In a voice that probably passed as gentle for Moody, he said, "You won't mind me saying, but your family wasn't exactly known for benevolent magic."
Sirius didn't answer.
"We still need a spell for the cellar," Remus said, tearing his eyes from Sirius.
Moody brushed away that concern. "I'll take care of it. I've got a blasting curse I've been wanting to test. You lot read through what's up here. Look up some protection spells." He scowled. "You could use the practice." He gathered his robes in a swirl around him and disapparated with a loud crack and whoosh of air.
They were alone.
"Are you all right?" Remus asked Sirius, thinking as he said it that he couldn't have chosen a more inadequate question. He'd forgotten this sense of helplessness, brushed over when they were at school with a joke or snide comment; they were too old for that now, the usual tricks wouldn't work anymore. He wished with an intensity that surprised him that they were sixteen again. James would have known the right words.
"It doesn't matter," Sirius said. He still stood at the far end of the room, hunched over himself with his arms crossed protectively in front of him. "It's not like I didn't grow up in this house. Not much surprises me about it anymore."
"It's not…." Remus paused, searching for words. "It's not an unimportant thing."
Sirius shrugged the way he used to do at school, a gesture that signaled in defined terms that the discussion was over. It had irritated Remus then, and it was no less irritating now. He also knew the futility of pressing further.
It didn't seem to stop him. "You're not your family, Sirius."
Sirius was silent for so long that Remus didn't think he would answer. Then, with a hesitancy that was unlike Sirius, he asked, "What did you think of them, the first time you met them?"
Remus smiled a little. "I was thirteen."
Remus thought back. It was hard to separate that first impression from the years that came after, from the filter of Sirius's own less-than-objective perceptions of them. "They were proud," he said slowly. "Intimidating. I don't think they thought much of your choice of friends."
But he also remembered Sirius's father listening to their teachers' reports of his son with a hint of pride in his eyes. Maybe a little too self-satisfied, a little too haughty, but it was there. "I think they loved you in their own way."
He almost expected Sirius to laugh, and he mentally braced himself for it. Sirius didn't laugh. He shook his head and said very seriously, "They didn't, Remus." He smiled and looked thirteen years-old again; awkward and unsure, the years of bitterness a distant and unwritten future. When the most they'd had to worry about was who was going to win the Quidditch Cup that year. "I minded that rather a lot. But it made it easier."
Sirius straightened. "Do you suppose there's anything worth looking up in here?" he asked, scanning the rows of books with distaste.
Remus breathed out slowly. He wondered if even James would know the right words for this. "Likely there is," he said. "But I think I've had enough of books for today."
He woke the next morning to Kingsley standing over the bed, startling and serene in Ministry robes.
"Good morning," Remus said, or thought he said. He suspected it came out as an incoherent mumble by the look Kingsley gave him. He blinked and tried to stir awake, his surroundings coming into focus slowly: the small room next to the library, walls a faded paisley that reminded him of Devil's Snare; the ancient, looming footboard framing a mattress he'd swear hadn't been used since the last giants war. Kingsley still standing like a tall pillar over him, looking entirely too fresh and awake compared to how Remus felt.
"I've been talking with Sirius downstairs," Kingsley said, his deep voice apologetic. "He said to wake you."
"Hm-mm," Remus managed. He thought about locks. Wizard-proof locks. "I'll be down in a minute."
Kingsley nodded and left.
Remus yawned. There was a clock in the room, a small, squat clock perched on a shelf by the bed, which occasionally chimed but never the right time. It read four o'clock. Remus didn't find that likely. His robe was folded on the chair across the room; he pulled it on hurriedly, shivering in the cold morning air, and glanced in the gold-framed mirror above the dresser.
"You look like you just rolled out of bed," the mirror commented.
"Be quiet," Remus muttered. His hair was sticking up at odd angles, and he flattened it out with a comb until it was somewhat presentable. His eyes looked swollen. He wondered how many hours of sleep he'd had.
He took the long way down to the kitchen. The dirt streaked windows at the end of the corridor framed a sky grey with haze, which told him nothing, and the house was as dark and dismal as usual. He saw the tail end of Kreacher slipping around a corner when he reached the ground floor, but he left it alone, just glad he didn't have to deal with the house-elf this early in the morning. Maybe he'd make himself scarce for a while.
Voices drifted up the stairway as he went down to the kitchen: Kingsley's deep, cultured voice and Sirius's rougher one. Sirius sounded impatient.
"I don't see what there is to get worked up about. It's not as if---" He broke off when Remus entered the room. "Morning."
Remus slipped into one of the chairs, propped his elbows on the table and rubbed his eyes. "There isn't any tea, is there?"
"Steeping," Sirius said. He grinned, but his eyes were stormy.
"I think we should schedule these morning meetings in advance," Remus said.
"Blame Kingsley," Sirius said. "These Ministry types do get up early."
"Most people consider this normal working hours," Kingsley cut in dryly.
Remus yawned and stole another glance at Sirius, who looked as tired as he felt; not like someone recently wakened but someone who'd never gone to bed in the first place. "How long have you been up?"
Sirius shrugged. "Couple of hours." He retrieved mugs from the dresser and poured three cups of tea. "Kingsley's brought us news."
Remus turned his attention to Kingsley. "So I assumed."
"One of my team members received an owl last night, with a note that Sirius had been sighted in London. Anonymous, of course."
"Were you able to head him off?" Remus asked.
"I sent him to the other side of the city to search." Kingsley smiled, the gold hoop in his ear winking in the dim light. "I'm personally searching this area myself."
"Any precautions we should take, other than the usual?"
"This is ridiculous," Sirius interrupted. He slammed down two mugs in front of them, and tea sloshed over the sides. Remus eyed him warily. "So the Ministry knows I'm in London. You know they can't find me in this house."
"When you stay in this house," Remus said pointedly.
Sirius threw him a scathing look. "I'm not one of the Weasley children, with their mother to nag them into obedience."
Kingsley coughed. He looked uncomfortable. "As I was trying to tell you before," he said patiently to Sirius, "I don't actually think this is anything too alarming. It might be tight for a few weeks, but I'll find a way to divert them."
"But I've been talking with Dumbledore," Kingsley continued, turning back to Remus, "and he suggests that we restrict movement going in and out of the house. For a few days, at least."
Remus nodded. "I don't have any trips planned," he said. "And there's nothing that can't keep."
"Good," Kingsley said. "If anything comes up, send an owl--but only if it's absolutely necessary." He took a sip of tea and stood up.
"Will you stay for breakfast?"
Kingsley shook his head. "I shouldn't. The search teams will report in soon." He turned to Sirius. "Thank you for the tea."
Remus sipped his own tea as Sirius slid into the chair opposite, mug cupped in his hands. "Terrible news," Sirius said, his face so bland Remus thought it might break.
"You're just pleased you're not the only one stuck here."
"It will do you good," Sirius said. "See how the other half live. Anyway, I imagine there's loads of work to be done."
Remus nodded. A few days of uninterrupted work would be welcome. There was a report due to Dumbledore he'd been meaning to write up, and they could always start cataloguing the library.
Sirius was gazing at him over his tea mug, far too smugly to be allowed.
"Then again," Remus said, "there's wizard chess in the drawing room."
If Dumbledore was their first line of defense--and Harry, too, as much as Remus hated to think about it--then he often thought of the house as the reserve trenches of the Order. Too used to shellfire to even hear it anymore, the dirt and grime of the house a sign of impermanence in the face of likely retreat. Day-to-day existence taking on the guise of normality; the surreal become simply habit.
Which, he reasoned, was all they could hope for.
Remus watched moodily as Sirius's knight beheaded his pawn, but not before performing some rather messy evisceration first. He cupped his chin and brooded over the chessboard.
"Was that really necessary?"
"I'm doing you a favor," Sirius said, unrepentant.
Remus looked down at the ranks of men, who were waving their fists wildly in the air at this new war atrocity. His remaining bishop's cheeks blazed with outrage, and he brandied his crosier like a sword. Both knights had to restrain their horses pawing furiously at the air.
"They're no use to me now," Remus said. "All anger and impulse. They're likely to martyr themselves just for appearances."
Sirius smiled. "Never underestimate the power of revenge."
They'd found the chess set in the attic a few months ago, dusty grey and buried under old photo albums and cracked china. From the way Sirius brushed off the pieces carefully, examining them for any marks on the stone, Remus gathered it had been his. He wondered why Sirius never brought it to Hogwarts. They'd mostly used James's set, whose pieces were more interested in standing around looking rakish than actually fighting, or Peter's, whose pawns had a tendency to run off the board at any sign of conflict.
He supposed it shouldn't surprise him that Sirius's were the more bloodthirsty type. Remus studied the chessboard and then took out Sirius's knight with one of his own, who leapt forward eagerly. Bits of anatomy flew about before Remus's knight stood smugly alone in the square, missing an ear but otherwise victorious.
"And this is a game we teach children," Remus said.
Sirius wasn't listening. His face was screwed up in concentration over the board. He had that look to him that Remus remembered from school, complete focus on whatever he was doing at the time as if doubt were something to be scoffed at, fought through, made weak and conquerable. It was strangely endearing.
Sirius moved his bishop. Remus winced. He'd lost two moves ago, and he was quite sure Sirius knew it, but he moved his queen out anyway. She stared down the opposition like a modern-day Boadicea, and he half-thought her powers of intimidation might nudge the game his way.
It didn't. Sirius soon had Remus's king caught between his queen and a pawn. For a moment Remus thought his king would surrender gracefully, but he chose to fight it out, bloodily. Remus looked away. "I used to be able to beat you at wizard chess. Half the time, anyway."
"Your strategies are sound," Sirius said frankly as he reset the pieces on the board until they stood straight and whole, eager for the next battle. "You just don't always follow through on them."
Remus stood and crossed the room, opening the curtains to a grey London street. Below, a Muggle woman walked by, hunched in a dark wool coat, umbrella held up against a light rain that Remus could just barely see through the glass. He imagined he could hear the clicking of her heels on the pavement, still marked with traces of snow, fading now as she turned a corner and the street was deserted again.
"It's raining," he said, as if the world outside made any difference.
He didn't hear Sirius get up, but he felt hands on his shoulders, resting there as if holding him up; it would be easy to lean back into them, let someone else take over and just forget for a little while.
Then Sirius was kissing his neck, and that was different. He didn't think that fell under the category of comfort. Sirius kept kissing him, pushing his hair aside, one hand trailing the curve of his back.
Sirius whispered in his ear, "Come on, Remus. It could be days before we're interrupted."
Remus ducked his head and laughed. He turned and Sirius looked back at him with a gleam in his eye, ten years younger and entirely self-satisfied. Remus lifted a lock of the long dark hair, let it fall. "It's hard to get used to you like this," he said.
"I'm not so different," Sirius said. "Neither are you, if you think about it."
Remus wasn't sure he agreed. "A lot has happened. We're not kids anymore."
Sirius leaned in. "I should hope not," he said, and kissed him on the mouth.
It was strange. Awkward, as if he'd never done it before. He almost pulled back, but then Sirius tilted his head and deepened the kiss, and Remus's body caught up to his head; it thought that this was probably the most glorious idea ever.
Then he did push Sirius away. "Wait."
"For what?" Sirius said impatiently, one hand cupped on Remus's neck. His eyes were darker now.
Remus glanced around the room, the chessboard set up across the room like a year-old memory, two dust-covered chairs and a rather lumpy couch. A faded rug in the center of the room. "We're not having sex on the drawing room floor," he said.
"My mother bought that rug off a Turkish wizard," Sirius said. "I'm sure it's quite comfortable. Besides," he said reasonably, moving his hand just a little, enough to make Remus's skin feel like it had been set on fire, "by the time we move to the bedroom, you will have thought all of this through and decided it's not a good idea, and then where will that leave us?"
Remus thought that very likely. It was a terrible idea, in fact. "Oh hell," he said, and pushed Sirius back against the windowsill, kissing through the doubts.
At some point they made it over to the rug, which wasn't at all comfortable. Remus didn't care. He was naked. They were both naked, and Remus spared a thought of relief that no one could see in through the window, because he was quite sure they looked ridiculous. He didn't know if he cared about that, even. He was kissing Sirius's stomach, which did weird fluttery things. Then he was kissing Sirius's mouth again and he couldn't wait anymore. They rubbed against each other like teenagers until there was a roar in his ears and his brain shorted out, and he'd forgotten what this was like, letting go.
The sun was setting. The drawing room glowed orange and red. Remus could see dust where light angled in through the window, warming the room as if they were in the early days of autumn and not the dawn of winter. It felt good on his bare skin. Remus propped up his head with his arm. His backside was numb from lying on the floor.
Sirius was telling him about Bermuda fireworms.
"They swim to the surface after sunset and glow green, swimming in circles around themselves. Like very small salamanders." Sirius paused. "If salamanders were green and lived in water."
Remus shifted on the floor to find a more comfortable position. It remained elusive. He was too numb to feel much, anyway. "What do they do?"
Sirius frowned. "I don't think they do anything. They glow and circle and mate, then swim back home again."
"I meant, do they have any magical properties? Can Muggles see them?"
"They're Muggle creatures," Sirius said. "That's what makes it amazing."
Remus stared up at the ceiling and tried to imagine what it had been like, watching glowing non-magical worms thousands of miles and an ocean-span from home. "You never did write me," he said.
Sirius turned his head to him. "Did that bother you?"
"Not really," Remus said. "I assumed that if you'd been caught by the Dementors I'd have heard about it. Read about it in the Prophet. 'Sirius Black found dead on pile of coconuts. Ministry baffled.'"
"I don't think the Dementors ever leave Britain," Sirius said. "Besides, it's not like you didn't have important Voldemort-fighting business of your own."
"Not much," Remus admitted. "There wasn't a lot I could do." It had been a frustrating year, actually; away from Hogwarts, trying to fit together pieces that didn't quite match, knowing at the end that there was very little he could have done, anyway.
"Then I suppose we were both in the same situation," Sirius said.
"Perhaps," Remus said, thinking it strange that, if so, there had been such a vast distance between them at the time. And now their roles were reversed. Changed from the first war, at least, when Sirius had always been the one in the forefront, the one the older Order members went to when they deigned to consult the younger crowd. Now they went to Remus. He wondered if Sirius had noticed, if it bothered him at all. It wasn't something he would ever ask him.
Sirius's stomach growled loudly.
Remus smiled. He moved, this time to sit up, and winced as blood rushed to his legs. He tried to ignore the tingling, biting sensation as feeling returned. "Can you reach my robes? I think we have food in the kitchen."
They dressed and made their way down to the kitchen, which was dark and damp until Sirius set the fire going. Remus put the kettle on and thought a bath might have been the better idea, but then decided he was hungry enough to wait.
He expected this to feel more awkward. He stole a glance at Sirius, who was scowling doubtfully at their stock of food and appeared as comfortable as if they did this every day.
"Should we talk about this?" Remus ventured.
"Talk about what?" Sirius asked from across the room. He made a face. "Do you think the stew's still good?"
"Is there any left?" Remus asked, surprised.
"Some," Sirius said. He stared down at the pot. "I don't remember replacing the preserve spell," he said thoughtfully. Then he shrugged and put it over the fire anyway. "It can't kill us. Hopefully."
The kettle was whistling. Remus took it off the flame and looked around for the teapot. It never was where he left it. He found it hidden behind the cookbook Molly had left them, Common Cooking Mysteries, which loomed dust-covered and mysterious. Remus ignored it and searched a random jumble of canisters for tea.
"Did you never wonder, though," Remus said, pouring water into the teapot, "how everything might have turned out…differently?" It was easier to speak with his back to Sirius. "Because you know it's not the same now." Remus heard the words, let them come without thinking. "We can't pretend that we can go back."
He risked a glance over his shoulder. Sirius was leaning up against the wall next to the fireplace, grinning at him. "You're quite mad, you know. Of course we can't go back. Did you think that's what this was?"
Remus shrugged and put the kettle down. "It would be easier in some ways. If that's all it was."
"Maybe," Sirius said, sounding unconvinced. He glanced down at the pot over the fire. "I think this is ready."
If the stew had gone bad, Remus didn't notice. They ate in silence. The space between them had shifted again, into strange uncharted places. Remus didn't know if they were friendly or just neutral. He couldn't tell by looking at Sirius.
He took a sip of tea that had gone cold. "I really should write up this report for Professor Dumbledore."
Sirius didn't say anything to stop him, so he left the kitchen, detouring to the second floor bathroom to wash up. There was a claw-footed tub in one corner, a modern showerhead above it. He had to say three different spells before the water would run hot. Even then it turned cold again after only a few minutes.
The library was cold as well. He said a spell to light a fire and sat down at the desk, his hair still damp and rubbing wetly against the back of his neck. He took out a quill. There was blank parchment in the desk drawer. He read through Kingsley's Ministry reports, the reports from other Order members tracking former Death Eater movements; he glanced back at his recruitment file, trying not to wince at its miserable inadequacy. He wondered what he could possibly report to Dumbledore that would make the situation seem less bleak than it was.
There was nothing he could tell Dumbledore that the headmaster didn't already know: this war could go either way. He put down the quill.
Across the room the fire crackled, and he felt old. Old and tired, and tired again of reports that told him no good news and reminded him just how powerless he was. He stood and left the library.
Sirius wasn't in the kitchen. Kreacher was, and the house-elf glared malevolently at him from the corner of the room. Remus felt his hand tighten into a fist without his willing it, but he left the house-elf to his bitter solitude. Upstairs, Buckbeak blinked sleepily at him. Down the stairs at the far end of the corridor, Remus paused in the doorway of the bedroom Sirius had been using. It was dark and he could just barely make out the pale shadow of rumpled sheets, the room depressingly empty of any personal possessions and empty of Sirius as well.
He found Sirius in the attic.
"Remus," Sirius called to him, as he creaked up the wooden steps and suppressed the urge to sneeze. The attic smelled like dust and the remnants of very old magic. Sirius was surrounded by boxes and old school trunks, crouched down beside an open box with brightly painted objects and what appeared to be piles of glitter around him. "Give me a hand with this."
Remus picked his way carefully across the attic floor, nearly tripping over a wooden chair with two legs missing. He caught himself on a low-slung beam and knelt beside Sirius. "What is this?"
"Christmas decorations," Sirius said. "I thought there might be some tucked away up here. My mother liked Christmas," he said wryly. "Not for the 'good will to man,' you understand."
Remus picked up a silver bauble with the head of a snake etched on its surface. The snake hissed and bared its fangs at him. He dropped it back into the box.
"We'll leave those," Sirius said. "But I thought I remembered there were some less…hazardous decorations." He pulled out a knotted pile of silver tinsel, and a box of red and gold baubles carved with milder scenes of snowy houses. "There should be more streamers in here, too."
They rummaged through the box until the streamers were found, and Sirius added them to his mounting pile. Tinsel clung in staticky clumps to Remus's robes, and he suspected a few snake heads might have found their way into the stack as well. Something to discover later, he supposed.
"Now we just need a tree," he said.
Sirius nodded. "I suppose that will have to wait." He glanced sidelong at Remus, and there was a warmth to his eyes, a gentle reminder--I'm in this too.
Remus found an empty box and began to fill it with the decorations they'd set aside. "Let me help you carry these downstairs," he said.