“Sirius—Sirius, you’re giving me angina.”
“I am not. But if I am, it’s of note that you probably already had it when you met me. I bring everything within you bubbling to the surface. Like fondue.”
“What’s angina?” Harry asks, craning nearly to the ceiling to meet Remus’s eyes, which sends his glasses slipping backwards.
Remus rights them for him. “It means Sirius is making my heart very exhausted. It’s tiring to put up with Sirius’s many—ah, let’s call them quirks.” He pushes Harry’s fringe off his forehead—a move he’s never grown out of, one Harry has never stopped leaning into. “Mind you, Sirius’s quirks could give anyone angina. A hippogriff, even. A dragon.”
“I reckon he gives me angina sometimes too,” Harry says.
“Did you hear that, Sirius? You give the sprog angina.”
Sirius, having finally stopped grabbing tomato slices bare-handed out of the cast-iron, drops a plate heavy with toast and eggs before Harry, who clambers onto his knees to better reach it. He’s already got a forkful in his mouth when Sirius leans to drop a kiss in the wilderness of choppy, heart-wrenching waves Harry inherited, saying, “Sorry, sprog, but if you’ve got angina then we’ve got to go to the doctor.”
“On second thought I don’t have angina after all,” Harry garbles around a mouthful of scramble.
Sirius snickers, meeting Remus’s eye across the table: an indulgence Remus never stops thinking of as something he’s stealing, like he’s working his way through a cosmic allotment, someday he’ll run out of moments to catch Sirius’s silver-slick, river-rock gaze. “A miraculous recovery, wouldn’t you say?”
“I would,” Remus says. The window is open, and this one particular stream of sunlight has caught Sirius like a mosquito in amber. In old checkered boxers and an Oxford crewneck he must have stolen from Lily when they were all sixteen and everything but a seraglio to each other, he’s resplendent. “Will you come sit already? You’ve bustled about enough for one morning. Next thing you know, it’ll be the cat crying angina.”
“It’s a terrible word,” Sirius says, whirling back to the stove, where he makes an enormous plate for Remus: scramble, fried tomatoes, and beans on toast. Remus can’t remember what meat tastes like, it’s been so long since he had any, but looking at a full spread without bacon does sort of depress him. “Angina, I mean.”
“Why’d you say it again, then.”
“I believe it’s my natural right to indulge in horrible things once in a while.” Sirius sits with a plate of his own, smug smile cutting creases at the far corners of his eyes. “Take notes, Harry. Seven year olds can indulge in horrible things, too.”
“It’s my natural right,” Harry says dutifully.
“Brilliant boy,” Remus says, which makes Harry grin that crazy James grin, the one with too many teeth, the one that used to get Remus’s heart dancing in his chest and some sort of half-baked alibi stirring in his head. “Sirius is right, you know. You’re allowed to be wrong, sometimes. We’re all wrong sometimes. Except me. I’ve never been wrong in my life.”
And Remus supposes that right there is the straw on the camel et cetera et cetera, because there’s a knock on the front door, two syllables, kar-ma.
His panic is perfectly reflected in Sirius: hand in the pocket reaching for a wand, gaze darting to the protective runes etched over every doorway and window, stance widening.
“Harry,” Sirius says very calmly. “Do you remember what Remus and I told you to do if someone we don’t know comes to visit?”
Without a word, Harry dutifully lays his fork on his plate, slides off his chair, and patters down the corridor to the big bedroom. Remus waits until he hears the closet click closed before stalking to the green-painted front door, it’s meant to be homely and safe but here they are, wave-crush of nerves in his ears and slopping down his neck like a cool tide. They’ve made it nearly five years without complications but the act of kidnapping one’s godson from the house of their nutter aunt and uncle really must catch up with them sometime. If the moment of reckoning is here, then Remus is ready to polish off his best memory modifier, collect their scant amalgam of odd belongings, and bounce to the next sun-soaked cottage they inherited by means of James or will rent using Sirius’s prodigious inheritance from that mad old queen Alphard. Remus spent so much of his life loving Suffering like it was his soulmate, but he has had peace these four years, true peace, perfect crystalline peace like sun on an undisturbed pond, and would honest to God rather carve out his own tongue, cook it, and eat it than give up everything they’ve built together.
“One,” says Sirius, stood beside the laden table with his wand straight out.
Remus grabs the knob in a hand that feels cold despite the pervasive and pollen-light spring warmth beaming through the gaping windows. “Two.”
They take a breath together, sharp and loud. Remus braces himself, then throws the door open.
He blinks. There’s nothing. Just the uninterrupted spread of undulating grass, the crooked stone fence that rings the property, the apple tree and the tire swing and the reading benches, the garden plots and the early sun and a thin layer of fog muffling it all.
“Huh,” says Sirius.
“Down here, arsehole,” comes a voice from near Remus’s feet.
Remus instinctively looks. On the stoop stands a dirt-streaked garden gnome with an impressive scowl and a chip in his cobalt blue hat. “Hi,” Remus says, and then he bursts into borderline hysterical laughter, giddy with relief like a champagne cork shooting at wedding-day doves. He melts against the doorframe, holding his forehead in his wandless hand. “Oh, God. Padfoot, love, go get Harry.” Without checking to see if he’s listened, Remus crumples to the floor, spine tingling like hot toast crumbs, folded legs and a finger extended for the gnome to shake. “Hello. I’m sorry for the ruckus. Is there something you—hehehe—is there something you need.”
“Obviously there is,” the gnome says. “I wouldn’t endure contact with wizards if there wasn’t.”
“You’re very eloquent,” Remus says. He feels drunk. “Good God. What can I do you for.”
“There’s something eating through our houses,” the gnome says.
“Your houses,” says Remus.
“Yes,” the gnome says, still scowling spectacularly. “There has been enormous damage rendered upon our long-term settlement.”
“You have a long-term settlement,” Remus says.
“Yes, we do.”
“In my yard.”
“Yes, in your yard,” says the gnome.
“Using what,” Remus says. “What—resources have you used to build a settlement in my yard.”
“Twigs and gnome magic.”
Remus stares. “Would you mind if I come visit your settlement sometime. To see gnome magic in person. I study creatures, you know, so it’s, it’s of a great fascination to me to view—gnome magic firsthand.”
“You’re teasing,” the gnome says. His white unibrow has lowered menacingly over his beady painted eyes. “You’re not taking my complaint seriously.”
“What precisely do you want me to say,” Remus says. “Use your gnome magic to put up compulsion charms, or else wards.”
The gnome huffs derisively. “A gnome’s magic doesn’t work the same way a wizard's magic does. If you truly studied creatures you’d know that.”
Remus believes he deserves an award of some sort for refraining from scoffing about the obviously great and splendorous features of gnomes which make the study of the species so riveting, please excuse him for being so grossly uninformed. “So, what then,” Remus says, “are you blaming us for the damages?”
“Guilty until proven innocent,” says the gnome, crossing his arms. “You’ll find the problem, of course.”
“We will,” Remus says, deadpan. This is less funny, suddenly. “You want us to come chasing squirrels away.”
“You said it yourself,” says the gnome. “This is your yard, which means it’s your responsibility to exterminate whatever it is infringing on your ecosystem.”
“You’re infringing on my ecosystem,” Remus says. “And my scrambled eggs.”
“The nerve of you,” the gnome says furiously, scuffing a boot over the dew-damp welcome mat. “As if gnomes haven’t been inhabiting this land far longer than you and your dog and your muddy child—”
“Don’t dare say a word against my dog or my muddy child,” Remus says, a twinge of impatience curling him over his knees. “I am wildly, cosmically lucky to have the dog and the muddy child, and I will not sit here in the foyer of my home and endure your—curmudgeonly attitude for a minute longer.”
“You have a week,” says the gnome, leaning closer, teeth bared, oh woof, “to riddle out what it is destroying our homes and to get rid of it.”
“And if we don’t?” Remus says, straightening so that he can (perhaps immaturely) tower above the gnome for a moment.
“We’ll declare war,” says the gnome, simple as saying I’ll take two sugars. “We’ll call upon gnome clans all across the country and raise a fearsome army, we’ll show you what terror and destruction truly mean—”
“Alright,” Remus says, perhaps because the word war is tender, perhaps because there is a small but burgeoning curiosity tickling something dusty and academic behind his eyes as to what is purportedly invading his property. He has a great lot of heirloom tomato plants and dandelions to keep safe, after all. And he hasn’t had anything more interesting to solve than the crossword in half a decade. “Fine. One week. We’ll have the intruder gone.”
The gnome relaxes a degree, giving Remus a once-over. “You mean it?”
“Cross my heart,” Remus says. “And, once we’re finished, you’ll leave us be, won’t you?”
“Gnomes are a very self-sufficient people, when push comes to shove. We have no reason to interact again after you have assured our safety.”
Remus holds out his finger once more. The gnome looks at it, takes it, and shakes, then turns on his heel and waddles off into the unshorn grass of the front garden, not much more than a triangle of porcelain hat bobbing between the dandelions.
“Just our luck,” comes Sirius’s voice from where he has, apparently, been leaning in the kitchen doorframe to eavesdrop, Harry perched happily on his hip. “We’ve got the most civilized gnomes in all of Wales.”
“That’s what we get for choosing Hay-on-Wye,” Remus says. “All those books must’ve—I dunno, broadened their minds or something.”
“I like him,” Harry says with a firm nod. “He’s funny.”
“I don’t think he means to be funny,” Sirius says. “He means to scare us away.”
“I wasn’t scared,” Harry says, looking at Remus. “Were you scared?”
“No, I wasn’t,” Remus says, pushing awkwardly to his feet, bum hip sore from sitting so long on the hardwood. “I’ve got something far scarier living inside my house.”
“You mean Padfoot, don’t you,” Harry says, pitching forward in Sirius’s arms. Sirius scrabbles for a renewed grip, but Harry continues to flail until Sirius relents and lowers him on the floor.
“Yes, I do,” Remus says, stumbling a step back when Harry barrels into his knees. “Oof. Careful, love.”
“We could just call the de-gnomers,” Sirius says with a degree of forced-coolness. “You’d think by now they might have forgotten my face well enough that they won’t set off some sort of national lockdown. Or I’ll just go dog while they’re around.”
Remus huffs, running restless fingers through Harry’s hair. “Don’t be stupid, Sirius.”
“Yeah, Sirius,” Harry says, muffled by his faceful of Remus’s trousers. “Don’t be stupid.”
“It’s not worth the risk,” Remus says, lifting Harry with a grunt. “Besides, even if the gnomes were gone, the creature bothering them would still be here. We don’t want whatever it is plowing through a gnome-home appetizer and moving onto our roof as the entree. And you,” he prods Harry’s nose to make him wrinkle it all puppy-dog and adorable, “have got to finish your eggs. You were brilliantly behaved, but the excitement has passed.”
“Eggs give me angina,” Harry sighs, dropping his head on Remus’s shoulder.
Remus rolls his eyes while Sirius gives a delighted, pealing laugh that echoes between the cottage walls, the only church bell Remus has ever put enough stock into to heed. “All right, clowns,” Remus says. “Breakfast, and then we’ll start hunting.”
“Geared up?” Remus calls, tucking the last corner of his flannel into his denims.
Harry comes scrambling around the corner, beaming. He has a cap smushed crookedly over his hair and green rubber gloves on his hands—far too large, and thus rolled into cuffs at the elbow. His dungarees, too, are rolled; Harry, poor thing, seems to have inherited James’s vertical challenges rather than Lily’s willowy valkyrie frame. He holds a tiny spray-bottle that sloshes with an anti-insect solution Sirius spent the morning brewing, hair progressively frizzing in the steam; when he grumpily follows Harry into the living room, he wears a bandana to hide the damages.
Remus grins. “Well, look at you. Ready to face-off with anything, hm?”
“Yep,” Harry says proudly. “Sirius buckled my dung’rees because the buttons are very hard.”
“That was very good of him,” Remus says.
“And then I said,” Harry affects the polite tea-party tone Sirius painstakingly taught him, “thank you, Sirius.”
“And I said anything for you, kiddo,” Sirius says, rocking into Remus’s side, arm around his waist. The bandana is really doing something for him, brutal red against the smooth brown of Sirius’s skin and the shard of ultra-black widow’s peak cutting onto his forehead. “We ready to go?”
Harry responds by running right out the door.
“Well,” Sirius says, a grin dancing in his arched brows. “You can’t knock him for enthusiasm.” Remus drops a lingering kiss on Sirius’s temple, the type that has him closing his eyes and leaning close. “He really is the perfect kid.” The hand Sirius has fisted in Remus’s flannel tugs, once and then again. A silent expression of that old knotted anguish, of the strange guilt their perfect little range life inspires, it’s like they’ve taken a can-opener the earth’s crust to crack some twisted demonic entity loose and this is what it shows them, this is their worst nightmare, it is every pillowtop Ephialtean whisper, a tritone in technicolor dipped in syrup, half-cauterized to crystal but still sticky, it is made all the worse because it is so unfathomably lovely. A woodside cottage. Respite. Peace. All possible because they lost nearly everything they had to live for.
“Yeah,” Remus agrees, hand finding the back of Sirius’s neck before giving him one last kiss, chaste, on the lips this time. It’s stubble and chapstick and stale tea. It’s nothing like how he used to taste (razor blades, smudged makeup, a wild high off sniff, panic sweat, blackberries). It’s home. “C’mon. Before he eats a dandelion or something.”
Harry is impressively not eating a dandelion when they find him, but rather has rescued a forgotten piece of rain-soft sidewalk chalk and is scribbling swirls and stars on the crooked stones of the pathway that speckles their front garden. The chalk crumbles, leaves his gloves coated in a fine whitish film. Harry mutters to himself as he draws, but looks up when he hears them coming and tosses the chalk aside. “Were you being mushy again?” he says.
“We’re always being a little mushy,” Sirius says, extracting his wand from behind his ear. “Right, Moony?”
“A little bit of mushy is good for the heart,” Remus says, drawing his own. “It neutralizes the effects of angina, actually.”
“Wow,” Harry says, eyes damp-moss deep in the slanted light beaming through the cloud cover. “D’you think we could make the bad guys eating the gnome houses go away with mushy?”
“I think that’s our modus operandi if all else fails,” Remus says. “Ready?”
Spray bottles and wands in hand, they head towards the edge of the broad woodlands that extend for miles past their property, littered with gone-brown detritus of leaves and fungi, intermittently populated by thick patches of bluebells. Their Fidelius is marked two miles into the woods—far enough that a wolfsbaneless Full poses no threat to Harry but not so far that they affect the growth of the fantastic collection of beech, ash, and oak that claw closer to the horizon with every elapsing season—and Remus knew there was a gnome denomination inhabiting the land when they drew the wards, communicated with a spokesperson to assure they wouldn’t be infringing upon a habitat, but they have had no cause to think of the gnomes since; they’re so isolated that Remus presumed they were hermits, which suited him just fine.
It takes some looking, some shifting of undergrowth and tall grass, but once the settlement is in sight, it’s unfathomably blatant and somewhat astounding: an arrangement of log-cabin-like homes, waist-high on unreasonably-tall Remus, some larger than that, made of leaf-speckled still-living twigs, sun-baked mud, and a certain natural magic Remus can detect vibrating like putting his ear to Sirius’s throat while he hums, like dropping the lid to a pan and watching it spin. There are gaping holes carved out of the roofs and walls and widening windows, rendering the ornately carved doorways obsolete. It’s truly a town: there’s a clock-tower that tells accurate time, something that looks almost church-like, a bakery that smells of bread and some sort of toasted nuts, Remus didn’t even know gnomes ate, but here it all is, a functional little society albeit chewed through like a massive caterpillar has gotten at it, and all of the members have turned to stare at them suspiciously for invading.
“Who would’ve thunk,” Remus says. “They really have a long-term settlement in our yard.”
“This is otherworldly,” Sirius says, a wondering smile spreading across his lips corner to corner, that jaunty silk-light thing Remus has been eyeing since they were twelve and Sirius still didn’t have it through his thick head that regular people don’t eat snails at lunch. “This is absolutely batshit insane. They’re—like, they’re little people.”
“They are literally—”
“I know they’re little people, but they’re porcelain, they’re—I mean, how does this work.”
“Pictures move,” Harry says. “Makes sense that porcelain eats.”
“You heard the boy, Padfoot,” Remus says, rubbing a hand through Harry’s mop top. “Makes sense.”
“Silly me,” Sirius says. “Of course it makes sense. Thanks for putting it into perspective, Haz.”
“You’re the pureblood. Shouldn’t you know these things.”
“If you think any other member of the family Black for the past dozen generations has been this close to anything that regularly touches mud,” Sirius says with a bark of laughter, “you’re out of your head, love.”
“Wild thing,” Remus says, grinning back.
“Mushy,” Harry accuses them, squinting. “Mushy, mushy.” He sprays them with the anti-insect.
Remus is still laughing, leaning on Sirius’s shoulder for balance, when they are interrupted by the approach of a green-hatted gnome, scowling, wielding a pitchfork. A second gnome peeks out a window to spot the ruckus, and a third.
“Why are you here?” the first calls. “Trespassing.”
“Trespassing,” repeats Remus. He gives a baffled choke of laughter, this entire thing is just a bit ridiculous, maybe being raised by his muggle mother has left him a bit closed-minded re: all the stranger aspects of magic, he tilts his head back to squint at the clouds, clouds are real and normal. Cumulonimbus. “Alright. We’re just—examining the damages to your lovely long-term settlement which is on my property. We’re exterminating the beast from your settlement and thus my property, which is mine.”
One of the gnomes harrumphs. “It’s about time.” A second says, “Are all landlords this slow to help tenants?”
“Have any of you caught a glimpse of the creature?” Remus says, ignoring the landlord comment, bloody hell. He kneels gingerly at the back of a two-story structure for a closer look at the damage. The edges of each gap are sharp, crooked, like pointed teeth carved them or else the roofs were snapped like water crackers.
“It only attacks once we’re out of town for the day, gathering provisions or exploring the wood,” says another gnome. More are crowding close, squinting in the silver light, dozens of them painted in all shades, all scowling at the three Lupin-Potters in their wellies and rubber gloves. “We tried leaving a guard, but the beast didn’t show itself when there was a chance of being caught, which is poor manners if you ask me.”
“Of course,” says Sirius.
The gnome looks at Sirius and is visibly bolstered. “Yes, yes, it’s wildly rude! Only cowards wage war when the enemy army is missing!”
“If the beast doesn’t come when you’re around, and you’re all here now, how old are these damages?” Remus interrupts, probing the edge of the broken roof with a fingertip. No dark magical signature emanates; no scent has been left behind. Remus pulls his wand and begins some simple diagnostics with low hopes. If his attuned nose isn’t picking anything up, he doubts there’s anything to be found.
“Well,” says the gnome, gruff again. “After it didn’t show for a few days, we figured it would be alright to just… drop the guard.”
“And the beast came again, of course,” says Sirius. Remus can hear the haughty scowl in his voice. “Irrefutably disrespectful.”
There’s a yank on Remus’s shirtsleeve, which he follows just in time to watch Harry roll his eyes enormously. Remus has to wrinkle his nose against a snicker that comes rising like geyser steam; perhaps Harry spends too much time with him, to be so jaded so young. Remus grabs him up in his arms and sits him on his hip as he eases upright, joints cracking in an awkward symphony. “We’ll give the town perimeter a good spray with an anti-insect solution for now and see how that works. I’m not convinced it isn’t some sort of magically-enhanced termites. Maybe carpenter ants that were exposed to some sort of potion runoff.” Remus gives Harry a sudden look. “You haven’t been engorging termites, have you?”
“No,” Harry says, eyes wide. “I hate leggy things.”
“You’re a leggy thing,” Sirius says. “Padfoot’s a leggy thing. The cat’s a leggy thing and you engorge him three times a week.”
“That’s not the same,” Harry says. “Mustard isn’t going to eat me like termites would.”
“Termites would eat you?” Sirius says, prodding Harry’s shoulder. “I didn’t know I had a Pinocchio kid.” Harry swats at him in retaliation. Remus hands Harry over so they can localize the damages.
“We’ll be out of your hair,” Remus tells the gnomes, who are watching in various stages of displeasure. “Tonight, we’ll spray. Tomorrow, spend as much time away as possible. That’ll give us an idea of what we’re dealing with.”
“What if the beast comes back?” a yellow-hatted gnome says. “We’re just meant to let it destroy our settlement?”
“Well,” Remus says. “Yeah, pretty much.” The gnomes start to protest. “Look, I’m not an expert. I’m doing my best here, but I’m just some guy.”
“Clearly,” Remus hears scoffed through the din, and he takes pause as something starts to prickle up the length of his spine. It’s one thing to say it about himself; it’s another entirely to hear it from a gnome living on his property.
“You’ll want to go inside,” he says loudly, and Sirius breaks into laughter behind him. “The solution is safe, but your paint may take damage if it hits you directly.” A beat. “Which would be an enormous tragedy to me. Obviously. I care so much about your paint. You, the gnomes who built a miniature Rome on my property.”
“Ooh,” Sirius says to Harry. “Moony’s got something to prove. Angina is the least of our worries from this point on; Remus would happily die to prove himself right.”
“Don’t die, Moony,” Harry says. “You’re supposed to grill scrimps and peppers tonight.”
“You’ll get your shrimp, Harry,” Remus says, something ancient and young in turns swirling in his stomach, Galatea-clay and its potential, a fire and brimstone sort of ferocity that had him and Lily near-blows when exam season rolled around, he thinks it might be the idea of a competition, a sense of old pride, and it is so foreign to him at twenty-mumble years old, it is so close to the hungry teen loss quashed, that he cannot help but grin, toothy and scathing. It feels horrible and miraculous and unspeakably good. “Moony’s going to take care of everything.”
“He always does,” Sirius says, grinning back, alight.
“I haven’t seen you like this in years, Christ, slow down a second you maniac,” Sirius gasps between frantic kisses, tripping the pair of them flat onto their rickety, creaking mattress. The bedframe shudders under their combined weight. “You look half a second from trip-jinxing me down the moving stairs so you can grab the good station in Herbology.”
“The closer you sit to Sprout—”
“The more she favors you, I know, you’ve had your green-thumb stuck up your arse since the day we met,” Sirius says, grinning, throwing his head back on the pillow to grant Remus improved access to the scruffy stretch of real estate on the underside of his chin. “You’re the least swotty person in the world until exams come around at which point you always seemed to be one double-E away from offering Slughorn your goods and services—”
“Secured my twelve N.E.W.T.s, didn’t I,” Remus says into the knob of Sirius’s adam’s apple. Sirius’s fingers skim through his hair, scritch against his scalp, and he feels like lightning, he feels the jagged cut of a high hitting and the tingle behind his kneecaps like he’ll never quite walk right again. “Will you shut up, I’m trying to seduce you.”
“There’s far too much clothing in the way for that. Or is this s-some new style I haven’t heard about yet, fuck, Remus.”
Remus grins against Sirius’s ear, heart hammering a pretty bruise against his ribcage, he has felt wild since this afternoon, he feels young again, wild and young and hungry and Sirius is the first thing on his mind when he is any of those things, Sirius is like hearing Moondance or Colossal Youth for the first time and the second time and then smoking a spliff and listening again for good measure, he is the best of times the worst of times, he is something between the lines of a Ginsberg poem, silver and shiny-toothed and starving hysterical naked under the starry dynamo of et cetera et cetera. “Just flip over, there’s a good man.”
“A shag is anything but transactional with you, Moony,” Sirius says, squinting over his shoulder at Remus. “Hey.”
“What, what. Are you sincerely incapable of undressing and talking at the same time.”
“I was going to comment on how lovely you are when you look alive, color in your cheeks and all,” Sirius says, working his shirt off, “but never fucking mind, you look like pilled wool and a burnt egg white.”
Remus laughs about it all evening, every time he remembers, mid-teenage-messy-snog and mid-thrust and while they’re brushing their teeth after, into the navy-dark stillness of their bedroom while Sirius snores against his spine, sleepy and snickered as his eyes grow heavy. He hopes the beast comes back tomorrow. He hopes it raises hell for him to fix. He forgot how much he likes a puzzle.
In the morning, Harry short-circuits the microwave with accidental magic and starts to cry. This happens twice a week and thus Sirius and Remus have gotten very good at de-escalating and cleaning porridge off the ceiling, respectively.
“We’re not mad,” Sirius says lowly, holding Harry against his chest. “It’s an honest mistake, kid, it can happen to anyone. That’s what magic is like when you’re young, and you are so powerful, of course it’s taking time for you to get used to it.”
“I’m sorry,” Harry sniffles, wiping his nose on his wrist.
Remus shakes a handkerchief out of the tip of his wand and drops it onto Harry’s head from his perch atop a wooden chair. He then returns to cleaning a cinnamon stain off the ceiling.
The rest of the morning is spent watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on loop until Harry is comfortable again. It wasn’t long that he lived with the Dursleys, not in the grand scheme of things, but it left its mark, needless to say.
Remus is still whistling Toot Sweets to himself when he forays into the garden in the hopes of finding a perfectly ramshackled gnome settlement. The tune cuts off sharply with his surprise: the holes are broadened, the damage more complete. Walls have come down. It feels like the supporting gnome magic is being somehow absorbed, sucked right out of the sticks.
A slow grin crawls from one corner of Remus’s mouth to the other. There is an unseasonably warm sun beaming on his shoulders, stinging the bridge of his nose, and it feels like Lily toying with him, come on Remus, where are you. You’re in there somewhere, rattling like a Victorian ghoul in the catacombs of your dust-coated and dilapidated selfhood, come out. Come out.
Remus examines the damage one last time, then marches back to the cottage, purpose in every step.
A red-eyed Harry is burrowed into the crease of the couch in a cocoon of quilts gifted to him by Remus’s mother, popping a clementine segment into his mouth. Sirius, beside him, has a small mountain of rind in one hand and the remaining three-quarters of fruit rolling in his other cupped palm. They’ve put on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan because Harry inherited Lily’s awful music taste, and it is all very domestic, so Remus struts past them to the ceiling-high wall of tome-laden bookshelves, white painted like a stairway to heaven. Remus waves his wand and a dozen texts slip out of line to hover beside him. He sets about reading: fauna of the region, what creatures’ migratory patterns are relevant at this point of the year, is it hunting season, is it mating season, he scrawls crooked notes on a scrap of yellow legal pad and sips tea when Sirius brings a chipped mugful to him. The sun shifts shadows. Harry eventually comes over and wiggles himself into the spot of chair between Remus’s one bent-up knee and one dangling leg. Remus continues to read over Harry’s head, to take notes around his narrow shoulders. Sirius starts on dinner, and Harry goes outside to attract butterflies with leftover pumpkin juice, and Remus only realizes the day has elapsed when the crick in his neck keeps him from being able to turn his head towards his notes.
Sirius, as if he had anticipated that particular complication, drapes a warmed cloth bag of rice over Remus’s shoulders. “There you are, studious bastard.”
“I have a plan,” he says, voice croaky with disuse.
“Tomorrow,” Sirius says, pushing Remus’s fringe off his forehead. “You’re out of your mind sometimes.”
“Literally,” Remus says, blinking. His eyes feel like shag carpet. Sirius’s cool thumb drags across the space between his brows and it feels like some sort of funny anointment. “God. What time is it.”
“Just shy of six,” Sirius says, grin playing on his lips. “Clear your shit off the table, I made soup.”
“Yes, with the rye bread Harry likes.”
“I love you,” Remus says. “Do I say that enough? Probably not. Your eyes are a very peculiar shade of grey and I think it is actually the color of my dreamstuff or else the perfect secondhand jumper.”
“Sometimes I look at you and I feel like I’m flat on my arse is sun-warm sand,” Sirius says, “and sometimes I look at you and I feel like I just licked a shoe.”
“Mm. Meant to be,” Remus says.
“Forever and a day or two.” Sirius lifts Remus’s scarred knuckles to his lips and drops a kiss at the summit of the middle one. “I’ll go grab the kid, you clean up your books.” He shakes his head. “Head-shrinks name diseases after people like you.”
The next morning, they set about packing wire mesh Remus usually uses to shield his tomatoes from deer and filling buckets with a round of bowtruckle repellent pellets just in case. Sirius helps cover the gaping roofs with pieces of tailored mesh while Harry scampers about, tossing rubber-glove handfuls of pellets into the grass. They go inside for tea, wait, and come back later to find disgruntled gnomes tearing down the mesh as it bears a sudden and startling resemblance to a sponge or else swiss cheese. The pellets are gone; Remus wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve been eaten as well.
“Hm,” Remus says. “Next plan, then.”
They try a fire-retardant and an insecticide effective upon fire ants. The next morning Remus goes to check the results and finds the bell tower has come down entirely. Gnomes pick through the rubble and glare up at him. He scowls back with a snarl, then returns to the books with a twinge of frustration. Puzzles sound like a great idea until you can’t bloody solve them.
On the fourth day it’s Remus who sits outside the gnome settlement all afternoon awaiting a visitor who does not come. When he ventures home for lunch, a lightbulb explodes; it isn’t Harry’s doing as Harry is napping off his maths lesson at the time, and when Remus goes to investigate he finds shards of glass in a pile on the ground around the metal base but the filament is entirely missing. Were he Sirius, he would try to read the scattered pieces, divine the message contained in the mystery, but considering he is Remus, he presumes the missing piece has rolled under the vanity or behind the toilet, vanishes the shards, and returns to his post outside. The evening is spent with a heating pad on his sore back and his head on Sirius’s lap, watching the fireplace dance, listening to the steady crackle of disintegrating logs, and knowing Lily is laughing at him from the beyond. Clever bastard she always was, though that came as a result of her hermitish habits more than anything else; she studied because she joined no clubs and had no desire to spend lonely hours wandering the Voldy Youth infested corridors, because she’d rather spend time with an Ella cassette and a sage stick and some Koch than any living person, because she was curmudgeonly and a massive bitch on her best days and always had something to prove to everyone. Anyway, she was Remus’s best friend from day one of first year and he misses her every fucking minute of his life and is acutely aware of the fact that she would’ve solved it by now. Not even when Remus plants his palms lines-down on the dirt can he detect some trace—a lingering rumble—of magic, snoring hippogriff or coy engine or distant thunder, maybe he thought he could pull something out of the ground with sheer will, maybe he thought a great lot of things but he is so often wrong, especially now, and he is so easily dissuaded when faced with a stonking Damoclesian failure.
Another day breaks. With this one comes Hope Lupin a-knocking on their door with a basket of muffins on her arm and ancient Birkenstocks peeking out from under the wear-torn hems of her dungarees. Her grey hair is shorn into a pixie with short fringe, and she looks singularly like one of the fae, she always has as far back as Remus can remember.
“Hey, love,” she says, muscling Remus into her arms. “Sut mae?”
“I’m good, we’re all good,” Remus says, hugging back, nose stinging with the scent of her, all patchouli and lemon leaf. “Are those raspberry?”
They squeeze through the front door together, hips and shoulders pressed too close. “I wanted to surprise the kid, since he helped me pick them last week.”
“He’ll be pleased.” Remus takes the basket from his mother and sets it on the dining table, then lopes towards Harry’s room, where he finds him stuck crooked inside the neck of a t-shirt, arms akimbo. The covers are hanging half-off his bed, blue plaid draped onto the knicked hardwood. Plastic trucks and stuffed bears and his child’s broom litter the floor like shrapnel or fallen acorns, everything in this room is well-loved from the doodles Harry hides under a loose edge of wallpaper and assumes they don’t know about to the decorative pillows Harry sleeps cradling so they don’t get lonely. “Want help?” Remus asks.
“I heard Safta come in,” grunts Harry, straining. “I want to go see her.”
Remus tactically removes Harry from the shirt, then holds the arm holes open for him. “In you go. She brought a surprise.”
Harry pops through the head hole. “Please tell me the surprise is real food.”
“The absolute cheek.”
“Padfoot is okay at cooking, but all we eat is bread,” Harry says. “Hopey brings cakes and pears.”
“Hopey spoils you,” Remus says, grinning. “Come on, then.”
Harry goes running right out the door. Remus hears him collide with his mother before he sees it. Hope greets him merrily, kisses him loudly, and is going on about how enormously big he’s gotten in the six days since she last saw him while Remus sets out plates. Sirius, with scruff on his lip and fringe in his sleep-swollen eyes, comes into the kitchen dragging his feet, arms spread wide in anticipation of a hug that quickly comes.
“Sirius, love,” Hope says, kissing his cheek. They’re about equal in height, which is to say they’re both tiny, and Hope’s pale hair makes the early grey near Sirius’s temples stand out all the stronger. “How have you been?”
“Trying to ease the mania of your son,” Sirius says, long-suffering, kissing her back. “Has he told you about our gnomes?”
“Your gnomes,” Hope says, eyes wide. “No, he hasn’t. Your gnomes.”
“They’re giving Moony angina,” Harry says, one hand fisted in the loose leg of Hope’s dungarees.
She scoops him up, rests his weight on her hip. “Have you met Moony? Everything gives him angina.”
“Not everything,” Remus says with a scoff. Then he thinks. “Most things. Chamomile tea doesn’t.”
“Then I’ll put on a pot,” Sirius says, dutiful. “Mum? Coffee?”
“None of that, thanks,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “I had a cup of tea before I came, I’m fine, love. Remus, Harry, tell me about these gnomes.”
As they sit around the table, Harry dives into an explanation with wide eyes and emphatic hands flying, every inch a mini-James. He describes the spray bottles and the little village and Remus watches his mam listen with singular attention, nodding along and asking a dozen questions, the same anthropologist she’s always been; Remus half wants to hand her a pen and pad so she can take notes.
“They had a church,” she says. “What religion do they ascribe to?”
“I didn’t ask, between the threats of my death for non-compliance and the spontaneous technological explosions in here,” Remus says.
“It wasn’t me, Safta, I swear,” Harry says. “I didn’t explode the technologicals.”
“I believe you,” Hope says, pushing Harry’s hair off his forehead. “Have you figured anything else out, Remus? Any fur left behind? Droppings? Footprints?”
“Nothing,” Remus says. “It hasn’t been too much of a drag, though, really.” It’s been a break in routine, at least; the last time they had this strong an emotional reaction to anything at all was when Sirius purchased a punnet of unripe blueberries last month and the three of them sat at the dining table gorging and laughing themselves sick at the expression of the others when the sour juice broke onto their tongues. “Just tedious, is all.”
“Take down one of the old books, then,” Hope says, stalewort. “That creature catalogue, you took it with you when you moved. We’ll give it a look and solve the whole debacle by the end of the day, I bet.”
“You don’t have to, Mam,” Remus says, blanching. “I’ve got this under control, I’m never wrong and I know everything.”
“Oh, sure,” she says, a dry smirk on her lips. “I know, love. You know everything that has ever been known better than anyone else and you start dry-heaving when you’re offered assistance, my martyr son, boohoo, go get the book.”
Remus gets the book.
“We don’t have a magical fire,” Sirius says. He grabs up one of Remus’s hands and closes his fingers around the warm curve of a mug of chamomile. “And they die so quickly, it couldn’t be.”
“They don’t eat wood,” Remus says, still looking at Sirius. Those pants do wonderful things for his arse, really. “They just make treacle that turns people mad. Next.”
“Matagots.” Hope reads for another moment, then corrects herself. “But they’re meant to be harmless.”
The afternoon ticks by in similar form. No great new understanding is found; the book is discarded, Hope returns home to check on her laundry, and Harry whiles away an hour chasing the cat through the garden.
“I hate being stupid,” Remus says, still sitting at the kitchen table, stretching his stiff knees. Sirius, standing beside his chair, uses two fingers to lean Remus’s head against his sharp hip, and Remus looks up at him through his lashes. “I’m still smart. Stop smiling at me with that face on your face, I’m still smart even though I’m old, Jesus fuck, am I old and stupid? Two things we always said we’d never be and now I’m both of them at once? Why are you still standing here looking at me. I have no more redeeming qualities.”
“In omnia paratus, baby,” Sirius says, scratching a spot behind Remus’s ear. “That’s how we went into this, right? Stupid and ancient you may be, but you’re also my old man.”
“Tried and true, keeping away your blues.” Remus shoves a hand up the back of Sirius’s shirt to feel his skin stretched like neat, flat water, an iced-over lake and his fingers are skates, they’re blades scraping up slush, really they’re something far softer than that, he’s a plastic spoon scooping up Cool Whip, Sirius is sugared sweet even after being beaten so hard, he’s here looking down at Remus with something enormously fond in his eyes like they’ve been in precisely in this position through every single one of their prior elapsed lives, like their souls are old flames and these bodies are expendable, wonderful tinder.
Remus is opening his mouth to say something sappy and disgusting when their oven gives a sharp hiss. Through the glass panel of the door, Remus sees sparks.
He shoots to his feet, drawing his wand, and approaches, beyond used to this in their shitty beautiful miracle house which is held together with spit and a prayer and the polar force of his bullheaded stubbornness. He tosses the door open, Sirius behind him, and for a moment he believes the oven is empty. With a Lumos in place, he bends over and peers inside, expecting an electrical fire, wracking his brain for the proper spell to smother one, but the light hits the shelf and it is not alight. Rather, it is occupied.
“Oh my God,” Remus says. He closes the oven door sharply. “Oh my—” he goes hobbling back to the dining table and flips madly through the creature index, “C, C, where are the Cs—oh you have got to be shitting me.” XX classification… attracted to objects supported by magic or electricity… parasitic but otherwise largely harmless. “Sirius.”
Sirius is on his knees before the closed oven, peering through the glass pane. “Moony.”
“It’s chizpurfles,” Remus says.
Sirius tosses a look over his shoulder. “You solved it?”
“Yes, well, there’s a chizpurfle chewing through wires in our oven, so it wasn’t all that hard for me anymore.”
“Hey, Moony,” Sirius says, turning towards him, still sitting on the floor. “You solved it.”
Remus feels a grin crack onto his lips. “Take that, Lily.”
Harry comes inside then, arms full of squiggling ginger cat. He stops in the entryway. “Why’re you on the floor,” he says to Sirius.
“We’ve trapped a chizpurfle in here,” Sirius says, patting the oven door. “Moony’s solved it.”
“Good job, Moony!” Harry says. He tosses the cat onto the hardwood; it flails, but lands. “What’s a chizpurfle.”
“They’re creatures that feed on magic and electricity,” Remus says. “We’ve got plenty of those things here, we’re a factory for magic and electricity, it makes sense. And I didn’t even think of it since they’re so small, but they wouldn’t be affected by our insecticides, of course, they’re more closely related to the modern crab—”
“Crab?” Harry says.
“Yes, well, sort of like a crab only green and brown,” Remus says, and then he stops, because Harry has his big guilty eyes on. “Haz?”
“So the bad things are the crab things,” Harry says.
Remus and Sirius stand at the same time.
“Because I saw those in the bathtub. I’ve been feeding them some of your little cherry tomatoes from the garden,” Harry says. He blinks owlishly, shifting his weight. “Is that bad?”
Sirius bursts into enormous, echoing laughter. Remus sits right on the floor and tugs Harry into his arms and drops a kiss on his cheek.
“You are so kind,” Remus says, head tucked over Harry’s shoulder, watching Sirius lean weakly on the kitchen table, coughing around that rattling thing that’s lived in his chest since Azkaban. “Please don’t feed strange creatures anymore. It makes them want to come back and live here forever. And especially don’t feed them the tomatoes I fed magical growth enhancers. No wonder they stuck around. They wanted more of my magic tomatoes from my magic kid and when they couldn’t get that, they ate gnome magic and our oven instead. Go figure, huh.”
“I didn’t realize they were bad,” Harry says, tapping his little hands on Remus’s back, a nervous tattoo. “Wouldn’t’ve fed them if I knew.”
“I know, love,” Sirius says, still chortling to himself, coming to sit on the floor with them. “We both know. Now we all know better for next time.”
“And we know exactly what we have to do to get rid of them,” Remus says, giving Sirius’s knee a gentle kick. “Right?”
“Or, Moony knows, and that’s all that matters,” Sirius says, grabbing Remus’s ankle. He runs a thumb over the knob. “He was always the creature-expert in school. Still the expert, as he’s more wild creature than he’ll ever be man.”
“No dander,” Remus says, shaking his head. “Of course I couldn’t sense them, they’ve got those shells, the armor, nothing fleshy touched the earth. Of course. The missing filament, electricity, it’s all there. I’m still a young genius in my prime, I take everything back. I’m smart and youthful, I’m positively kicking with adolescence.”
“The youngest,” Sirius says. “Oh, Haz. C’mere, kid.” He reels Harry close with one arm, huffs with the impact of Harry against his chest. “Everything is going to be just fine. Chizpurfles. Good bloody God.”
“It’s too dangerous for my kid to be around,” Remus says for the fourth time, pinching the bridge of his nose. “He’s a beacon of accidental magic, he’s a box of unlit firecrackers and I won’t have him in proximity of the spark i.e. the infestation, I don’t care about your—”
“Sworn ceremony!” the gnome yells, waving his arms around his head. “We shook hands! That’s an unbreakable promise in gnome culture!”
“I didn’t realize shaking your hand meant I’d die if I didn’t exterminate the chizpurfles in a week,” Remus grits. There is a light wind tossing his hair. It’s chilly, and he wants to go inside before it catches in his joints. He wants this over with, full stop.
“You won’t die,” says the gnome. “That’s a horribly rude implication.”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” Remus says. “I’ll just physically literally turn into a gnome, which is, of course, a preferable alternative to death, I obviously won’t immediately tell my husband to come at me swinging a hammer a la empowered construction worker to put me out of my fucking misery—”
“By sundown tomorrow,” the gnome says, then whirls on his heel and retreats into the gnome village.
Remus sighs. Cleaning up a completed puzzle is always the worst part.
There are chizpurfles in the pipes. There are chizpurfles in the garden. In the walls. In the vents. Under the molding. Coming out of the stove knobs. Devouring every ounce of gnome magic holding the gnome settlement together.
“Play your Judee Sill record,” Sirius suggests. “They’ll off themselves before we even get to them.”
“Fumigation?” Hope suggests over the phone, tinny. “I’ll take the kid for the day. I’ll take the kid forever, actually, give me the kid. Give me the kid.”
“I’m never going to be able to leave him at your house comfortably again,” Remus says.
In the end, the plan is precisely Marauder worthy i.e. it is idiotic and unpleasant and accidentally dangerous, but just slightly ingenious at that.
“If James could see you now,” Sirius says, palming Harry’s cheek.
Harry, who is dressed in a protective costume of four layered jumpers and jackets, oven mitts tied tight at the wrists, thick denims, and wellies, says, “He’d say that’s a beach ball, where’s my kid.”
They drop Harry, suited up, in the center of the lawn. Remus tells him, “Go nuts.”
The steps of the plan are as follows: Harry goes wild with not-so-accidental magic, drawing the attention of the hungry chizpurfles; the chizpurfles storm the palace, as it were, to partake in Harry’s magical store; Padfoot a la dog rounds up the enemy, then pulls Harry out of the way just in time for Remus to drop a ward that will capture the chizpurfles inside.
Of course, nothing works as it should: Harry’s magical light show attracts dozens more chizpurfles than expected, hundreds more, and Harry bolts because of the leggy things (said in a tremulous soprano that has Remus wheezing with pneumonic laughter), which means the chizpurfles follow him all skittering and clicking pincers in circles around the property. Padfoot chases them while barking very seriously indeed, and Remus stands there until he is struck with divine inspiration like a warm breeze and casts a spectacular Wingardium Leviosa that hoists the glorified beetles into the air as if on a flying carpet. Feeling altogether fifteen at most, Remus spares a glance at Padfoot leveling Harry flat on his back in the grass, flailing and laughing while Padfoot laps at his cheeks, then vanishes the entire collection of bugs in one fell swoop to somewhere at the heart of the Newborough Forest.
The strain on his magic has Remus hunching over his knees, coughing weakly and vaguely nauseous. Still, he laughs through it, relieved, pleased. Harry comes skipping over, Padfoot at his heels, and Remus is bowled over with an armful of celebrating child, of affectionate dog-shaped housewife, it feels like the sun is out, it feels like another slow day, it feels like the end of a mission, it feels like Remus would be glad to never touch another puzzle as long as he lives. Excitement, he thinks, is sour blueberries. He’s got it up to the elbows, he’s got it seeping out his ears, he’s got it clutched in his arms, laughing against his cheek, he’s done his puzzles good God he’s done his puzzles and lost too many pieces, this feels better than any puzzle ever has. He’s got his family and his life and his mam and his cottage, he knows everything that matters and he is young enough and life is good.